Opening of Tok Talanoa, Melanesian Symposium
Wellington 2008

Good evening, Tena kotu katoa, Halo Olgeta

It is a huge pleasure to welcome you to this truly important occasion, on behalf of the board of trustees and the staff of the Pacific Cooperation Foundation.
And I warmly thank Mr Tia Barret for setting the scene for our evening so appropriately and inspirationally.

There are many very distinguished guests and I would like to recognise in particular, from across the seas:
    Sir Rabbie Namaliu - former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
    Sir Albert Palmer - Chief Justice of Solomon Islands
    Kaliopate Tavola – Senior Trade Adviser to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat
    Alumita Durutalo – Senior Lecturer, University of the South Pacific.

And from New Zealand:
    Sir Paul Reeves – Commonwealth Special Envoy to Fiji and former Governor General of New Zealand
    Hon Luamanuvao Winnie Laban – Minister of Pacific Island Affairs
    John Hayes MP – National Party spokesperson on Pacific issues.

To you, members of the Diplomatic Corps, Distinguished Participants and Guests
We welcome you all.

I read recently a new book about America which argued that America is “a place and a story.” And the story is “one of self-invention and nationhood.”

Well, the United States is not on our plate tonight, although it is so much in the news these days that perhaps we can say, it is another success for the South Pacific that we have so far escaped relatively unscathed from the curiously called “sub-prime mortgage” financial crisis.

But what I felt about those words in the book was that much closer to home, they apply even more to that cluster of states we call Melanesia. This is a part of our world that is truly developing its place and its story, a place that is as immersed as any on the globe in re-inventing itself and developing nationhood.

It is that place and those stories that have brought us together tonight and tomorrow. As far as we know this is the first time there has been a symposium focused exclusively on relations between New Zealand and Melanesia.

New Zealand's contacts with Melanesia, and knowledge of it, show a mixed and complex picture. Historically these are thin by some standards, particularly when compared with the depths of our links with Polynesia. Yet within this, there are profound relationships going back to early Christian missions, and plentiful signs of a rapidly growing engagement in recent years – as evidenced by the Bougainville peace process, RAMSI, the dramatic increase in New Zealand's aid and Volunteer Service activity, the reach of the temporary work scheme we call the RSE, and many other milestones.

So we are at least partially aware of the issues, the achievements and the potential of this large and important the region, quite strongly so at senior levels, and increasingly so in terms of broad public awareness and personal and people-to-people contact.

The Foundation - the PCF - has the objective of fostering understanding of the Pacific on the part of all New Zealanders and of New Zealand's identity as a Pacific nation. That is a key context and we will be seeking to spread as widely as possible the knowledge and insights we develop here at the symposium.

As with the rest of New Zealand, our starting point is thin but not bare. We have for example a programme of bringing to New Zealand each year a distinguished Pacific Islands leader to give a lecture to a significant audience in Wellington and at least one other New Zealand city. The last three of these have been from Melanesia.

That programme, like this seminar, reflects a core feature of our approach to our work: we seek to hear Pacific voices.

Two or so years ago we hosted Sir Arnold Amet, then recently retired as Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea. He was passionate about the need for leadership, strong leadership within the rule of law, to guide Pacific Island states on a true and fair course.

Then a year or so back, we greatly enjoyed the presence of the Hon Sato Kilman, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Vanuatu. He gave New Zealanders a deeply thoughtful view of Melanesian cooperation, and opened our eyes to future possibilities in this field.

Earlier this year our guest was Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Vice President of Fiji at the time of the most recent coup. He gave us a wise and articulate view of the serious situation in his country, arguing persuasively that a satisfactory election could be held now under the current constitution, and that this would need to be followed by some period of reconciliation.   

It is our intention to build on these, and particularly on this seminar, to extend our engagement with the countries of Melanesia. Here, we have a marvellous opportunity to frame our perceptions and to shape this engagement.

Those of you who have just flown here from Melanesian countries will have been reminded that the distances in this part of the world are rather large. You are probably fully conscious too that there are certain climatic differences.

But – we come from the same sea, we belong in the same basket, and together we will lift shells.

To launch us on this endeavour, we are privileged to have with us this evening Sir Rabbie Namaliu, who was Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea from 1988 – 1992.  

From East New Britain province, Sir Rabbie held the offices of Foreign Minister from 1982 - 1984 and from 2002 – 2006 and Minister of the Treasury from 2006 – 2007.  Sir Rabbie was also Speaker of the Papua New Guinea Parliament from 1994 – 1997.  He was educated in Papua New Guinea and in Canada, at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.  Prior to his political career he lectured in history and political science at the University of Papua New Guinea, as the first graduate of UPNG to hold such an academic position.  Sir Rabbie is currently Chancellor of the University of Vudal, Papua New Guinea’s University of Natural Resources and Environment in East New Britain.  He is also engaged in a range of other business and public activities.

It is my great pleasure to welcome you, Sir Rabbie, and to invite you to set the scene for our symposium with your keynote address.    

Neil Plimmer, Chairman, Pacific Cooperation Foundation

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