Friday, 21 September 2018

3. We're all in this together: the inter-dependence of NZ and the Pacific Islands

When Helen du Plessis-Allan (@HDPA) came under attack for her negative and, some would say, outrageous remarks abut Pacific Islanders, she tried to dodge the issue, saying
" I do not regret what I said because I was not talking about people living in this country or the people themselves. I was talking about the Pacific Islands and the people who run it [sic]."
Barbara Dreaver "We are all in this together."  pn 90
 Come on. What then was she talking about?  The geography  of the Pacific Islands and its political leaders?  Nothing and nobody else?  Not even the Niueans she called "welfare spongers"?   Who is going to believe this!

Veteran journalist Michael Field  who has been writing on the Pacific for close to 50 years, said: 

"It reveals the astonishing ignorance of Pacific history by the majority of New Zealanders ..."

Correspondent Charlie Mitchell , writing  on Nauru's phosphate exports, said  New Zealand enjoyed decades of cheap phosphate, which became lucrative meat and wool.
"Few things are as responsible for the country's economic successes as the exploitation of its Pacific neighbours," he wrote.
Well-known TVNZ Pacific affairs reporter Barbara Dreaver summed it up by saying:
"As someone who has lived and worked in the region for nearly 30 years I have nothing but contempt for the sheer ignorance I have been reading from those whose idea of the Pacific is lying poolside at Denarau with a pina colada." 
 "Now that the phosphate dust has settled and the shameless self-promoting headlines about the Pacific being 'leeches' and a waste of time and money have lost their hysterical edge - let's take a look at some facts ....  New Zealand needs the Pacific as much as the Pacific needs New Zealand." Ms Dreaver said.  "We're all in this together."

In part 2 of this series, we looked at some of historical facts which clearly demonstrated NZ and the West had gained at least as much from the Pacific Islands as we had given.  Now let us look at the contemporary scene.

3. The Contemporary scene . We're all in this together: the inter-dependence of NZ and the Pacific Islands

As the world's political, military and economic scene becomes more fragile and complex with cyber-crime, transnational crime and humanitarian crises now added to the list, and as the South Pacific has become an increasingly contested strategic space," it is essential, as Deputy PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters recently stated,  that "we reaffirm our identity is anchored in the Pacific  ...What is good for them is good for us.  Put simply – if we’re not there some other influence  will be."

There's no need to second guess who the other influence is.  

China is now only second to Australia in its Pacific aid, and we are a distant third. There is, however, one important difference, much of China's aid is in low interest loans that some countries will find difficult to repay. Some call it "debt dependency." Ours is less obviously a form of dependency, but most if not all aid comes with some strings.

Rt Hon Winston Peters

Government's Pacific Reset Programme

Government's  Pacific Reset Programme   will see the Pacific Islands  receive  60% of the NZ aid  budget, which is geared to  increase by 30% over next four years, to total $714m  or  0.23% of our gross national income, down from 0.28 in 2011. Much less than the UN target of 0.7%.

For the most part, the aid will benefit  the Pacific Island  but we should not under-estimate  the strong element of self-interest in our aid programme.

At the recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nauru, Island leaders stressed that climate change and fisheries were their main concerns, to which we concurred, but together with Australia we stressed "security"  (which includes issues such as cyber security, money laundering,  maritime boundaries,  political stability,  China and  foreign interests) as a major concern.

Island leaders did not ask for  Peters for his aid platform  but part of his "security"  places  and "an increased focus on sectors important for the promotion of our values – including good governance and transparency, human rights, women’s political and economic empowerment, and youth."  More work is needed by NZ on this part of its programme. Pacific Islanders' values need to taken into account.

Our aid will also  increase funding to multilateral institutions  "to raise the profile of issues relevant to the Pacific in multilateral contexts".  

This will enhance  NZ's international profile in the UN, World Bank, EU and ADB.  We should not forget that Islands support won us a seat in the UN Security Council.

While our aid will bring benefits to Pacific Islanders we should not overlook its benefits to us. Mr Peters noted that climate change land reclamation aid in Kiribati will "also reduce migration challenges in the years to come." And less pressure on us to taken climate change refugees?

Peters accepts that aid support is not just altruistic, but also "good economics"

 "Prevention saves money. Preventative health strategies save far more taxpayer health dollars downstream by tackling health problems early. In the same way, development assistance helps to maintain a safer and more prosperous New Zealand over time, saving money that would otherwise be required in future defence budgets or in border control." (See RAMSI below)

Trade imbalances

Aid is also partly offset by a trade imbalance that greatly favours NZ.  In dollar terms, we export 13 times more to the Pacific than we import.  Much more can be done to stimulate local Island production.

Take Niue as an example, which will receive $71m in NZ aid over the next four years. In 2016 the island imports totalled $17.9m and exports $2.1m, exports having decreased by  11.4% since 2011.

A closer look at the imports is mind-boggling: flavoured water, beer, poultry, eggs, icecream  (My step-granddaughter makes and sells icecream in Samoa), crustaceans (What's happened to the famous Niue land crabs?), and molluscs.  These items totalled over $1m. With the right skills and support,  all could be produced locally

Our aid programme should help develop local initiatives, including those aimed at import substitution. If Niue is a sufficient example, so far our aid seems to be promoting NZ imports!

Part of the problem could be the decline in Niue's population, from 5,200 in 1966 , to 2,100 in 2000, and 1624 this year.  The loss is as much qualitative as quantitative.  Many people with skills and enterprise who could create businesses in Niue, emigrated, mainly to NZ  which is now home to over 23,000 people of Niuean descent.  

There are an estimated 300,000 people in NZ of Pacific Island descent.


Islanders working in NZ repatriate large parts of their after-tax income to their families in the Islands, and until recently after working for up to 40 years in NZ,  they lost their pensions if they chose to return. 

In April, Government announced that from 2019, Niueans, Tokelauans and Cook Islanders would no longer need to return to New Zealand late in life to get New Zealand pensions.  

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said this would provide big boosts to the local  economy:
"It is expected that [this] will help boost economic development and human resource capacity by allowing highly skilled people to continue contributing to their communities in these Pacific islands."  

Ms du Plessis-Allan, however,  had something different to say  about the  new Government initiative:
"What is that if not acting like a welfare sponge?:" she asked.  "What is that if not sponging off New Zealand?  Do we exist in New Zealand to fund Pacific islands?" 
 She ignored  the fact that many -- like other New Zealanders -- had worked, spent much of their earnings and paid tax in NZ for up to 40 years -- and the fact that Niueans, Tokelauans and Cook Islanders are New Zealanders.


In 2003 the Solomon Islands government requested aid and support to contain tribal unrest. The Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Island (RAMSI), led by Australia with NZ and eight Pacific Islands which provided military and police support, cost an estimated A$2.6B before it wound down in 2017. 

RAMSI demonstrates the need for inter-Pacific co-operation which could well be a harbinger for the future. Besides natural disasters which are likely to increase with global warming, there is a potential for unrest around the Bougainville vote on leaving PNG, and with a standing military that could stage another coup, Fiji could also become another ignition point.


Since Independence in 1970, the Fiji military has performed UN peacekeeping operations jn the Middle East, Iraq, Kosovo, and Sinai, performing roles not dissimilar to those of the NZ Defence Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Since the 2006 Coup relations with NZ have not been good. In my opinion, we placed too much emphasis on the supposedly democratic basis of the deposed government and too little on jts chiefly and Fijian-ethnic imbalance.  Fiji accused us of interference and since then has pursued a largely independent role, accusing us of dominating the Pacific Islands Forum and pursuing its own course in taking climate change issues to the UN. 

Since the 2014 elections relations have improved, and hopefully will continue to improve after this year's elections. Fiji is essential to any notion of coordinated effort in the South Pacific.

It  has the largest population and economy. It takes $440m worth of NZ exports, far more than other Island countries. It is a transport hub and a natural coordination location for trans-Pacific networking. It also has immense potential. But here again, we should remember that one size does not fit all, and that some of our Western values are not fully applicable in different historical and cultural situations.

 Labour movements
Seasonal workers from Vanuatu
We are heavily dependent on the army of Pacific Islanders on temporary seasonal work visas. Over 4,000 come annually from Vanuatu. There are also over 1,500 Solomon Islanders and several hundred Fijians. Without their input, many of our orchards, vineyards and farms would be struggling. Australia also takes seasonal workers from the Islands and the USA is now also showing an interest. With competition from these countries, we may well find ourselves short of seasonal workers.

Looking to the future, it is also likely we will become increasingly dependent on Pacific Island care providers.  As the proportion of  our elderly increase, we will be looking to younger populations for assistance.

Of course, labour movement is not one way.  Pacific nations also rely heavily on NZ (and other nations) for business investors and skilled workers in a number of areas. In addition, over a 100,000 Pacific Island residents visit NZ every year, and about 300,000 Kiwis travel the other way, mostly on holiday.

Other contributions

We make a significant contribution to education in the Pacific Islands but at the tertiary level universities in Fiji (and its 18-island campuses) and Samoa, with some financial help from NZ and elsewhere,  develop skills that are later used in the Islands, NZ and other countries, sometimes leading to a lack of skills locally.

We have already noted that our Pacific presence enhances our international reputation which, in turn, produces political and economic advantages. 

The resources of the  Islands are not evenly spread but even the smallest have extensive Exclusive Economic Zones that extend 320km offshore. The submarine cables that connects us to the Americas pass through them.  And within these EEZs fishing boats from Taiwan and Korea illegally extract millions of tonnes of fish. With income from this one resource at, say, $8,000 for a day's fishing, many would need far less aid.  Closer inshore in territorial waters there are seabed mining prospects.  The Islands need our help to protect their fisheries and assess the pros and cons of seabed mining.  We need their help to maintain a safer and more prosperous New Zealand.

I was going to write about the contribution of Pacific Islanders living in NZ  but that can wait until another time.  My case rests.  The relationship between NZ and its Pacific neighbours is by no means one-sided, and with the  Government's  Pacific Reset Programme it promises to become more reciprocal -- but only if we allow Pacific leaders to embrace their priorities, express their values, and do not try to impose our priorities and Western values on them.

--- ACW

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