Pacific Futures Conference 2019 - Highlights

November 2019

By Dr James Kember

This is a preview from the forthcoming Jan-Feb issue of the New Zealand International Review (which will be out in early December), where we are featuring the conference

In partnership with the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, the Pacific Cooperation Foundation and support from the University of Otago, the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs organised a one-day conference focusing on the influences and challenges facing the Pacific region.  While the Institute’s national conferences have tended to be held in Wellington, the decision to hold this conference in Auckland allowed for a strong presence from a number of locally-based Pasifika representatives, as well as underscoring the Institute’s role as a national institution.

By the various yardsticks of oversubscription, trending on social media, the involvement of and focus on youth, and the buzz of discussion amongst delegates – government, non-government, community, and business - this conference was arguably a success.  Four-fifths of the speakers were from the Pacific, as were half the participants.   It was also timely as Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said in his keynote address; the challenges facing the region are the greatest in 70 years and it was important to know who was on board to address these.

Having announced back in March 2018 a “Pacific reset”, and warning that New Zealand should not be taking its relationship with the region for granted as more countries competed for influence, Hon Winston Peters outlined some of the changes made in the intervening months, including some recalibration of initiatives, additional and well-targeted funding and a focus on partner-based solutions.    One example was the growth in the numbers able to participate in the regional seasonal workers’ scheme to around 350, which translated into $40m of remittances to home countries in the Pacific.   New Zealand, he said, had to have its eyes wide open as new security challenges and climate change had implications for the wellbeing of the island states, as well as for New Zealand itself.  A new generation of Pacific leaders were appearing and they deserved the fullest encouragement.   

New Zealand support, the Minister commented, had not only to increase in dollar terms but also had to be of a sustainable nature.  Growing the New Zealand footprint in the region was part of the shift in engagement.  He credited the United Kingdom with similar efforts and noted the role of Australia as a ‘critical partner’.   The EU and Nordic countries were also being encouraged to do more.  In lifting engagement, it was necessary to bring greater understanding by the New Zealand media that far from being a ‘do good’ or ‘feel good’ endeavour, this engagement had a far-reaching impact, including on New Zealand itself.   A number of later speakers spoke in a similar vein, the role of media being identified as one of the more pressing issues for change.

In the first panel session on the Pacific reset and the role of partner countries, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu suggested that New Zealanders were inclined to think of the Pacific in terms of Polynesia, and to overlook Melanesia.  As Vanuatu would graduate from least developed country status next year, it was important for partner engagement to focus on capacity development given that some sources of funding would stop at the point of graduation.  This point was echoed later by the Cook Islands High Commissioner, Elizabeth Wright-Koteka, her country similarly being poised to lose its LDC status (and access to some funding sources).  The High Commissioner spoke of “swimming in a sea of initiatives” and of her country more than ever needing greater control for itself over the aid agenda and the flexibility to shift priorities.   The Cooks’ own reset, she argued, had in fact begun years ago, in the realisation that LDC graduation would in turn require different approaches for development, yet still firmly rooted in a process of genuine engagement, and with initiatives leading to real action.

Similarly, Pacific Community Deputy Director-General Dr Audrey Aumua, noted regretfully that even after 70 years of investment, the Pacific remained a region of chaos.  For her, social change lay at the heart of the debate, with much more work required on health, social protection, education and employment.  While there was considerable disillusion about Pacific leadership, there were some heartening signs in various countries with a new generation of leaders coming through (a point Winston Peters had also made earlier in the context of the need for New Zealand to adjust to new regional realities as part of its reset).   People in the 15-24 year age group constituted 20% of all people in the Pacific region and they needed support and to be made central in development assistance planning.

Samoa’s Deputy Prime Minister, Afioga Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, put this in forthright terms.    Acknowledging that the conference spoke to the need for re-engagement, the New Zealand reset (and the similar Australian and British processes) would only be deemed a success if they resulted in more mature relationships being established; they had “to be surgical, not cosmetic” in what they delivered.  And in at least one case, there was little evidence this was in fact happening.  At the same time, she charged Pacific states with more responsibility to articulate its issues and challenges for themselves – although added that good leadership was being shown in the global debate around security and climate change.   She praised the “welcome shifts” in New Zealand policy on climate change:  “it brings New Zealand policies in line with what the Pacific has been saying for some time”.

The Honolulu-based East-West Centre’s Vice-President Karena Lyons, a former New Zealand Ambassador to several North Pacific states, commended the reset for restoring some much-needed New Zealand focus on the Northern Pacific. (But it was also pointed out by another participant that the Forum Secretariat staffing itself was woefully under-representative of nationals of Northern Pacific states.)  At the same time, she noted, New Zealand had to listen carefully to what countries said they wanted and needed. This echoed comments made earlier by the Cook Islands High Commissioner about letting states control the agenda.

On the point about partner states listening  and responding to Pacific states, New Zealand was offered a qualified pass mark (access to visas to come to New Zealand was one issue identified, especially as this impacted directly on training opportunities), while other partners were characterised as still inclined to try to solve problems by offering money and no prospect of a real policy shift on climate challenges, on which time was fast running out.  Panel chair Dame Winnie Laban, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika) at Victoria University of Wellington, also pointed to the need for partners not to compete, and to demonstrate some real understanding of the history and context in which they were operating in the region.

The second session also picked up on the sense that partnerships were less genuine and more transactional.  As Dr Anna Powles from Massey University and some other of the panel remarked, geopolitical competition could have a disruptive and destabilising effect.   Besides China, the US and India also had interests – and panel chair Professor Steven Ratuva from Canterbury University, also remarked that France was showing every sign of wanting to keep the tricolor flying over New Caledonia.  Regarding West Papua, Jose Sousa-Santos of Strategika Group - Asia Pacific, said that urgent action was required to pressure the Indonesian authorities to stop human rights abuses and genocide.

Destabilisation was also being felt from the increase in transnational crime, the influx of drugs and an albeit limited pattern of human trafficking, especially of sex workers in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.   Corruption was also widespread, although Jose Sousa-Santos suggested that required work at the state level, especially around the associated cultural challenges.  The drugs ‘tsunami’ was putting huge pressure on police and customs authorities, especially - though not only - in Tonga.   But addressing the ‘tsunami’, notably from methamphetamines now rife in a number of Pacific states, was a matter for health and social services as much as for law enforcement agencies. Sousa-Santos suggested that the practice of Australia and New Zealand in returning deportees was exacerbating the problem, since disaffected returnees without the normal social support, turned to a life of drugs and gangs.

The interconnectedness of security problems was highlighted by Jane Neilson from the New Zealand Ministry of Defence.  More attention was now being given to the implications of climate change for wider regional security. The issue was not only one of disaster management (New Zealand was responsible for a search and rescue zone covering 1/11th of the globe), but also the resulting economic and social consequences for communities from the loss of livelihood from depleted marine resource and flooded areas, including the entry of external fishing fleets into maritime zones, and the associated infrastructural damage following storm surges.  Ministry of Defence planning was therefore increasingly focused on the ways to mitigate climate change risks.

There were some positive developments. David MacGregor, Executive Coordinator at the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police Secretariat (based in Wellington), pointed to the development of leadership and navigation of regional policing challenges through collective approaches. A new five-year plan that will start in 2020 has identified some clear priorities. Affirming comments made by other panelists, MacGregor pointed to the suite of transnational, cyber and drugs challenges requiring a regional response as well as a host of social (health and education), gender and family issues for which more local-based solutions were needed. In some jurisdictions, the responsibilities of law enforcement agencies extended so widely (such as to fire fighting) that staff were hard-pressed to deal with core policing duties.

The third panel session on “Climate Change - Right Here, Right Now” brought social, security and regional economic challenges into sharp relief. Without action by the largest CO2 emitters, the collective efforts of smaller countries in the Pacific would do little to mitigate the challenges of climatic change so destructive for the region.  Several of the panelists spoke of the urgency of action: “we sweat and cry salt water” and “are feeling the impact today”.   It could “not be business as usual”.    

Professor James Renwick of Victoria University of Wellington, posited the inevitability of temperatures  going “off the scale”, the wet areas becoming wetter and the dry ones drier once rainfall variability increased due to the atmospheric changes.  Sea-level rise would be greater in the Pacific than the global average, making all the more urgent, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  Earth scientist consultant Coral Pasisi, outlined the various regional efforts to define climate security and the potential risks, from inaction or minimal action, of boundary changes as a result of sea-level rise, displacement and forced migration, the decline in the blue economy, the capacity to address natural disaster, and the impact on the health and welfare of Pacific people from loss of access to food, water, and fish including from depleted coral resource.

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio bridged the conversation between the focus on the urgency for action on the climate and the final panel on media and youth and new opportunities for connectivity.  Noting the responsibilities as “guardians of the environment”, the Minister recalled the central importance of protection of land, forests and the sea for the wellbeing of those living in the Pacific.  New Zealand’s own economic future and wellbeing was inextricably linked to that of the region.  He acknowledged that New Zealand had done too little in the past to develop education and training in the region, and also had to help make Pacific voices, concerns and aspirations better known in a world where too many saw the region as little more than “small dots on the map”.  In that regard (and picking up on earlier comments), he identified a real need for a stronger media presence in the region.

The youth panel saw some invigorating interaction, led by chair Josiah Tavita Tualamali’i, Founder of the Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation Council (PYLAT). Panelists were Elizabeth Kite, Founder and President of Tonga Youth Leaders; Ali Leota, Co-leader of the Brown Caucus; Okirano Tilaia, Deputy Chair of PYLAT and Youth Champion in the aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque Terror Attacks; and Mabel Muller, co-host of Radio 531pi Breakfast Show. A number of the lessons to be drawn included reducing the barriers to education and training, facilitating more training and increasing the number of scholarships, to empower younger people with the skills needed in their home countries. Young people were not an “inclusivity checkbox” simply to be ticked off but were ready now to take on more responsibility and wanted more face-to-face engagement with their elders.  They were speaking up because issues like climate change were for action now, not in the future.   As Mabel Muller put it: “don’t speak for the voiceless – just pass the mike”.  Elizabeth Kite decried the fact that New Zealand was almost isolated in not being a member of the Commonwealth Youth Programme and called for this to be rectified.   Ali Leota noted the initiatives underway in New Zealand to enhance the Pasifika voice, while Mabel Muller spoke of some of the challenges in developing media projects in a way that also takes into account the cultural context.

In concluding remarks, Dr Damon Salesa, Associate Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, contrasted the “future” of “what one had to live with” with that of “what one wanted to make happen”. In the latter regard, there was an intense struggle on the broad security front, including on climate security.  He expressed the hope that the “reset” was not something to be taken in a technological sense of turning the clock right back to original factory settings but rather was a realignment and recalibration designed to meet quickly the new and existing challenges in the region.   It was in part ironic - and its own challenge, depending on what was being measured – that the Pacific was both the largest place on earth and the smallest. Dr Salesa also echoed the regrets about the ignorance about the Pacific in the way it was portrayed by media in New Zealand.

Reference is made above to the measures for a conference outcome.   Another, of course, is whether the talk is translated into policy and action.  The presence of two senior Pacific Island ministers, as well as two New Zealand Cabinet members, suggests an intent to act on some of the presenters’ calls for more listening by those in power and for the face-to-face contact seen as lacking in much of the  past “engagement”.  It now remains to be seen how others, in the media, business, and in other countries, address the calls for action specifically relevant to them.

 

Dr James Kember chairs the NZIIA’s Research and Publications Committee.  Retiring from the New Zealand foreign service in 2017 after a career that concluded with a term as ambassador to France and the OECD, he had earlier served as Consul in Nouméa in the mid-1980s and as High Commissioner to the Cook Islands in the mid-90s.