During the early 2000s a doyen of New Zealand’s involvement with the Pacific Islands, Michael Powles, set out to form an organisation to improve New Zealand’s linkages with the Pacific Island countries and our understanding of them. He succeeded in obtaining government support for creating the Pacific Cooperation Foundation. When he first asked me to join its establishment board I declined, but a few months later felt I could manage the time required to be a trustee on the new body.
Like all such bodies it was an eclectic mix, with New Zealanders of Pacific Islands descent a part of the team. Michael had succeeded in winning some private sector support, including particularly the generous sponsorship of Brother, whose CEO Graham Walshe became another active board member. A Foreign Affairs staff member with wide Pacific experience, Vince McBride, was seconded to be the initial director.
We were three years into this when Michael said he was resigning the chair to live abroad for a while. He asked me to take over, which I agreed to with some hesitations relating to my other commitments rather than to the PCF itself. Michael, Vince and others had done a marvellous job in setting up the Foundation and by the time he left it was a viable and fully functioning body. My basic feeling was that the PCF would never, in my time frame, acquire the resources to be a significant player in development assistance and in directly stimulating economic growth in the Pacific Islands. In any event that was the government’s job, through its aid programmes. But by fostering better understanding in New Zealand of Pacific Islands’ needs and better understanding in the Pacific Islands’ populations of how a society like ours functions, we would be enhancing the environment both for economic growth and long-lasting political co-operation to New Zealand’s advantage. It was potentially an important part of New Zealand’s exercise of soft power in the Pacific.
We developed a strong focus on two big subjects. One, the biggest contribution the PCF made in my time, was the opening of New Zealand to temporary seasonal labour from the Pacific Islands. We concluded that having numbers of these people staying in New Zealand and working mainly in horticulture would over time yield a body of better skilled workers in the island countries, enable the remittance of earnings to improve living standards back home, and generally introduce islanders to a modern society without the need to migrate here.
We decided to have a major conference on the subject to identify all the issues around this and how best to resolve them, but early in the planning stages we had an informal message from the prime minister’s office that this was not a desirable course. The government had a particular concern that the workers would not return when their time was up. New Zealand had a bad previous experience with ‘overstayers’ and understandably the government did not want a rerun of that. A second concern was that some New Zealand employers would exploit the island workers, again creating negative publicity for the government to deal with. That required a small group of us to have an intense caucus because we could not afford to alienate the government and risk our funding, but nor could we see a better way of proceeding with a project likely to be so beneficial. I spent some evenings reading everything I could about how such schemes worked overseas and concluded that the most successful was one run by Canada for workers from the Caribbean. Canada had developed a set of provisions that virtually eliminated the potential problems. Workers who overstayed would be deported and blacklisted from ever coming back into Canada. That country did not have an overstayer problem! It also developed government-to-government arrangements with the ‘source countries’ to help enforcement. So we decided to proceed, confident that we could push the subject and propose solutions that would not make the government defensive. I invited the head of the Canadian system to come out to be a keynote speaker.
The conference, at Te Papa in mid-2006, was hugely successful. We called it ‘The Future of the Pacific Labour Market’ to give the impression we weren’t just targeting an employment scheme. Everyone we wanted came: the World Bank, potential New Zealand employers, senior people from across the Pacific and New Zealand officials. The Minister of Immigration, David Cunliffe, agreed to open it and spelt out the issues that needed to be addressed before the government could consider the matter further. We found answers, and not much later the scheme was introduced, at first on a trial basis and then, when it worked out well, as a permanent arrangement called the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme. It is hard to document what the temporary employees did with their knowledge and experience on their return home, but I am convinced the scheme was beneficial beyond the particular skills and money earned.
The second topic resulted from a long-established tradition that the Minister of Foreign Affairs every year or so took a planeload of officials and businessmen to two or three Pacific states, different ones each year, to promote business and other links. I joined up with one led by Winston Peters, a trip that included the Cook Islands and Vanuatu. This had a major impact on my thinking. Until then we were focused on the Polynesian islands of Tonga, the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and to some extent Fiji, areas of traditional New Zealand activity and influence. On the trip I realised that in these states generally, and the Cook Islands specifically, New Zealand’s engagement was so broad and deep across so many fields — education, health, public sector development, development aid and assistance and so on, and that migration to New Zealand was so strong — that the PCF could expend all its resources on them and still have its efforts swamped and unnoticed.
Vanuatu and the other Melanesian states, on the other hand, were much lesser beneficiaries of New Zealand help, and yet were much larger countries with at least potentially a great deal more influence, for good if they succeeded, for the worse if they failed. I also found their leaders keen to strengthen their links with New Zealand, not only for aid reasons but to dilute their strong dependence on Australia. And they were showing some muscle with the formation of the assertive Melanesian Spearhead Group, which New Zealand needed to engage with.
Thus one of the things we did was to widen our circle and strengthen our focus on Melanesia. We included Melanesian leaders in our annual project of bringing an influential Pacific Islander to New Zealand to meet our leaders, deliver a major public lecture and speak to the media about their country. These included a leading jurist from Papua-New Guinea, the deputy prime minister of Vanuatu and a former vice-president of Fiji who had been dismissed by Bainimarama in the aftermath of his coup. We sent more New Zealand journalists to the Melanesian states. The high point of this refocusing was the Conference on Melanesia in 2008. We called it ‘Tok Talanoa, Pathways to the Future for Melanesia and New Zealand’, and it produced a lodestone of ideas for fostering better understanding between New Zealand and the Melanesian countries. Speakers were of a remarkably high calibre, such as the outstanding Sir Rabbie Namaliu, former prime minister of Papua-New Guinea. It was a most enjoyable affair, reflecting in part the hugely positive and cheerful attitude of the many Melanesian delegates and dancing groups present.
We did much else where we found a productive niche. We developed a strong network of the embryonic Pacific Island national museums and counterpart museums in New Zealand with major Pacific collections and a willingness to train islanders and engage in exchanges. We had intensive relations with academics studying Pacific Islands’ issues and supported this research in various ways.
We developed web-based tools to help Pacific businesses. We made lengthy submissions to and appeared before a parliamentary inquiry into New Zealand and the Pacific. We developed the beginnings of a focus on civil society — strengthening non-governmental institutions — in the Pacific. I spoke at many meetings around New Zealand and in Australia about the issues. Vince and his staff were capable and productive.
After I had had three years in the chair the government changed and I thought it best that the chairmanship change too. This was reinforced by personality difficulties within the board and I felt it was time for better leadership. We were recruiting a new director and as soon as she, Meg Poutasi, settled in, I resigned. Tourism still flowed around me, a current that could not be turned off, but a gentler current now with fewer rapids and waterfalls. In 2000 I had been installed as the chair of the NZ PATA Trust, a fairly undemanding job that involved a board of old tourism hands working with the Tourist Industry Federation to select the recipient of the annual PATA Young Tourism Professional Award. But it meant that once a year I attended the federation’s annual conference in some part of New Zealand, and went up on stage to present the cheque to the winner. I kept doing that until 2014. Steadily, over the years, I knew fewer and fewer of the delegates and officials.
< Back to Pacific overview