Samoa, Tonga and Niue feel warmth of National leader’s campaign fire in the belly

In Samoa this week, Prime Minister John Key indulged in a bit of harmless flattery of his counterpart, Prime Minister Tuilaepa.

Speaking at a High Commission function, he observed he was somewhat envious of Tuilaepa's great power.

Not only was Tuilaepa now both Finance Minister and Prime Minister, he had changed the side of the road Samoans drove on, and changed the international dateline so Samoa was an hour ahead of New Zealand rather than a day behind.

"I can't even get through an amendment to the Resource Management Act," Mr Key added.


It was a slightly double-edged compliment. Such power vested in one man might be admired in a more status-driven Pacific country, but in New Zealand the word that springs to mind is Muldoon.

But it helped illustrate the mission of Mr Key's Pacific trip, a fairly last-minute affair just four months before an election.

That trip to Samoa, Tonga and Niue ended yesterday. Mr Key had described it as a good-will mission and it soon became clear he was looking for good will towards himself and the National Party. The bells and whistles of the 2009 mission were missing.

That had included a hip-hop group and former All Blacks Michael Jones and Inga Tuigamala. Mr Key had set about winning over the islands by getting into the spirit of it, including dancing in Niue - again something he did not repeat, although he did offer to make the new Pacific Economic Ambassador Shane Jones dance instead.

If his mission in 2009 was to get to know the islands, this time Mr Key wanted to harvest rewards of the relationships, preferably in the currency of votes.

Some in the Pacific community have claimed Palagi politicians with chiefly titles could use them to their political benefit. One even suggested to me that Mr Key, for example, should call a meeting of all Samoans in Auckland who hark back to Poutasi village and tell them all he was their ali'I [high chief] and therefore they had to vote for him.

Of course, To'osavali John Key could do no such thing without getting into a bit of strife. So he did the next best thing - he visited Poutasi, coincidentally reminding Samoans back in New Zealand that he was a chief.

In Samoa, Mr Key used a joint press conference with Tuilaepa to boast about how well Pacific Islanders were doing back in New Zealand under National. In Niue, he told a group of schoolchildren that his best advice to aspiring politicians was to "join the National Party".


It was effectively a shameless campaign trip - with Labour MP David Shearer and Greens co-leader Metiria Turei in tow, but largely unable to counter Mr Key's boasts at events where only he had speaking rights.

Mr Shearer didn't let him get away with it completely. When one of those Niuean schoolchildren asked Mr Key if politicians had to be good liars, Mr Shearer chipped in that in that department Mr Key was "first class".

There was a "quips at dawn" episode in Tonga. After Ambassador Jones said grace in te reo, Mr Key said he was sure he had heard the words "brighter future' in it - National's campaign slogan in 2011. Mr Shearer was quick to retort he was sure he had heard the word "Oravida" - the export company that got Justice Minister Judith Collins into a pickle.

Facing off, the two continued to trade similar such witticisms for a wee while. Both were laughing, but it looked for all the world like dogs scrapping over a bone.

Labour had handed Mr Key a gift in advance, by publicly musing that it would restrict immigration if needed. The PM poked at it with his scaremongering stick, saying it would mean some migrants' families would be left behind. It was migration of a different sort he really cared about.

Mr Key's constant claims Pacific voters were migrating to National were undoubtedly a tad hyperbolic. Then again, he is not looking for a massive swing. In elections where every per cent counts, so too does every vote, and if there is a chance they can be found on the islands, then to the islands he went.