How Australia Can Learn From New Zealand’s Diplomacy In Fiji And The Pacific

On the Air New Zealand plane back to Fiji from Wellington in Febru­ary 2019, after I attended a week-long workshop on governance and the role of non-state agencies in the
05 Sep 2019 14:19
How Australia Can Learn From New  Zealand’s Diplomacy In Fiji And The Pacific
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in London on April 18, 2018. Photo: DEPTFO News

On the Air New Zealand plane back to Fiji from Wellington in Febru­ary 2019, after I attended a week-long workshop on governance and the role of non-state agencies in the Pacific anti-corruption space, I reflected critically on the Pacific and the development aid that was poured into it.

The workshop had been funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (NZMFAT) and facilitated by Transpar­ency International New Zealand (TINZ).

This article reflects on how current progres­sive policies are proactively shaping Pacific policy narratives and space.

New Zealand’s Progressive Policies

On February 27, 2018, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her foreign poli­cy address indicated a major shift in terms of increased support for Pacific nations.

For Pacific islanders used to leaders attired in power suits and mouthing policy lines on increased GDP and trade, she was like a graceful dolphin moving symbiotically in its habitat.

In line with her progressive world view, her speech delved more on New Zealand values of good governance, transparency, sustain­ability and societal empowerment.

While economic sustainability and in­creased trade were still important, she made clear that they needed to be underpinned by affirming values so that ordinary grassroots people including children (rather than just the rich) would share in the benefits too.

With the benevolent demeanour of Mother Teresa and the inner strength of Joan of Arc, the Pacific was introduced to progressive pol­icies that is very much akin to the Pacific way of sharing and caring.

Ms Ardern was quoted by NewsHub in 2018 on New Zealand’s “independent foreign poli­cy”.

Alluding to United States foreign policy she said: “We’re always respectful regardless of whether we agree with others.

“But we have our view of whether or not we’re in alignment on (US) current approach to foreign affairs.”

Perhaps showing that New Zealand was going in a parallel trajectory to Australia, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters in his Sydney address at the Lowy Institute on March 1, 2018 reiterated New Zealand’s new progressive thinking.

He spelt out the foreign policy objectives underpinning this huge shift towards the Pa­cific.

Mr Peters emphasised that New Zealand was an integral part of the Pacific due to its location, its very large Pacific demography, and a “shared Pacific destiny”.

The nuance was not lost that New Zealand would stand with the Pacific on issues dear to their hearts. Mr Peter said that New Zea­land’s foreign policy was supported by the guiding principles of understanding, friend­ship, mutual benefit, collective ambition, and sustainability.

Although this is stating the obvious, Mr Peters re-emphasised it because there had been a view that New Zealand and Australia should be treated as development partners in the Pacific Forum.

At the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meet­ing in Tuvalu in August 2019, Ms Ardern said (during tense discussions on climate change issues) that she agreed with Pacific leaders that Australia should take climate change is­sues seriously although she respected that its reliance on coal was an internal matter that Australians would need to proactively deal with.

Her stance was in line with New Zealand environmental policies that ban new offshore oil and gas exploration and aims to generate 100 per cent of energy from renewables by 2050.

Ms Ardern’s decision to side with Pacific is­land leaders (rather than Australia) with an environmental issue that is very dear to their hearts caused a stir in some media circles in Australia.

The Pacific Development Aid Landscape

Having worked for a New Zealand govern­ment funded project on civic education for United Nation Development Programme and travelling around the Pacific, I was confront­ed with an uncomfortable truth.

The small island nations of the Pacific are complex places for effectively undertaking development aid projects. It can be exasper­ating if the funding models are not adapted to island conditions. In many island com­munities, it is frowned upon to disagree with guests (especially those who have provided funds for community projects).

This means that recipients of aid say things they feel the visitors want to hear rather than being honest and analytical.

I remember a project in a Fijian community where flush toilets were built for a school. A year later the toilet block remained in its pris­tine condition used mainly by visitors.

The recipients sensed that there would be a follow-up visit and wanted to show that the donor funded project still looked as good as new! Many such stories abound in the Pacific.

This brings me to my point about New Zea­land diplomatic staff inhabiting the Pacific development aid space.

Compared to embassy/high commission staff of three other nations I am familiar with, I would rate New Zealand very high in interpersonal interactions.

They have the talent for small talk, self-dep­recating humour and affirming inter-person­al interactions. This is very important given that it is a way of formatively monitoring projects.

They move around Pacific communities, find out what the challenges are and deal pro­actively with it on the spot.

They can be friendly, but also blunt in a re­spectful way. They do this with ease because they are considered part of the Pacific family.

I have a sense talking to United Nations and non-state agencies that receive NZMFAT funding that there will be closer scrutiny of how New Zealand taxpayer funds are contrib­uting to the overall improvement in the lives of ordinary citizens in terms of democratic governance, health care, Small and Medium Enterprises and educational opportunities.

One of the NZMFAT strategies emphasises the “deliver(y) of the best achievable out­comes from the resources invested in it.”

There is a move towards an integrated ap­proach so that a project, say on community health, will integrate climate change mitiga­tion, civic education and good governance with the proviso that it “sustains healthy and high performing communities.”

This implies that multilateral agencies, for example, do not concentrate all their energies on Government Ministries but also carry out formative Monitoring and Evaluation on tar­geted communities.

There is also a feeling that during the NZM­FAT Strategic Intentions Period (2018-2022), there will be some role for non-state agen­cies with links to civil society given their low overhead costs and their experience in grass­roots empowerment.

One NZMFAT strategy stresses the impor­tance of “enable(ing) effective and efficient delivery through fit for purpose and resilient network, systems and services.”

There is a never-ending debate on whether NZ and Pacific-based non-state agencies might have more positive impact and get pre­mium returns with New Zealand aid funds than European-based experts in multilateral agencies, attired in Versace dresses and Hugo Boss blazers presenting glossy publications with all the right KPI boxes ticked while the problems remain unchanged in the targeted communities.

Progressive model for the Pacific

Ms Ardern has brought a breath of fresh air into the Pacific mixed with a generous dose of progressive policies.

These policies affirm ordinary citizens to earn a decent living, have access to housing and strengthen social safety nets.

The strategies aim to drastically reduce the inequalities that exist between the rich and the masses. Ms Ardern’s government has also introduced paid parental leave that will go up to 26 weeks by 2020.

Families with babies get $40 a week in the child’s first year. Fiji has also introduced a similar policy with babies receiving $1000.

A newly-enacted New Zealand law allows victims of domestic violence to get up to 10 days paid leave (different from annual leave and sick leave).

Pacific politics tends to be dominated by assertive men who think in terms of money, power and privilege. In her policy speech to the UN in October, 2018, Ms Ardern called for kindness and co-operation from world leaders and said that New Zealand would be “a kind and equitable nation where children thrive, and success is measured not only by the na­tion’s GDP, but by better lives lived by its peo­ple.”

I was pleasantly surprised while on a taxi from Wellington Airport, to have the driver point out Ms Ardern being driven in a sedan without a motorcade. I gathered that she does her owning shopping.

This kind of humility from state leaders who practice what they preach sits very well in Pacific communities.

New Zealand Pacific “Reset” Policy

Mr Peters’ foreign policy speech in Sydney was framed in the regional mainstream me­dia as a strategy for maintaining influence amongst its Allies in the Pacific and keeping China at bay. Sometimes the media goes off on a different tangent to what is originally intended.

What should be noted is that there are com­peting foreign policy architectures in the Pa­cific.

There are simmering undercurrents of com­petition between PNG and Fiji who both see themselves as being the hub of the Pacific, and by extension, dynamic leaders who speak on behalf of the Pacific on the global stage.

In Fiji’s case, it’s years in the political wil­derness ostracised by the Pacific Forum, Aus­tralia and New Zealand (due to upheavals) made it cast its net towards non-traditional power sources.

These valuable friends were helpful in Fiji getting the Presidency Position of the UN General Assembly in 2016 and the Presidency of COP23 in 2017.

Fiji also received a hefty grant from the Global Climate Fund.

In 2018, Fiji was elected into the United Na­tions Human Rights Council garnering the second-highest number of votes among all candidates.

Virtually all major United Nations, regional and international agencies have their offices in Suva.

Perhaps recognising that one of Fiji’s mo­tivations in taking up these positions is eco­nomical, past New Zealand governments pro­moted mercantile policies that emphasised trade links. This worked well with Fiji.

Past New Zealand governments had their redeeming qualities and worked well to expe­dite aid development projects and trade.

My personal favourite is former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Murray McCully.

He had a long institutional memory coupled with a hands-on approach that kept everyone on their toes. He had the talent of sensing what would work and what wouldn’t.

In Fiji, he came into prominence during the very challenging days of Cyclone Winston when red tape had to be done away with for relief and rehabilitation work to be carried out effectively. In July 2019 he received the Order of Fiji.

Ms Ardern’s soft power approach with Fiji has worked well for both countries.

She has implied that New Zealand has no ambitions of being the hub of the Pacific or of treating the Pacific as its “patch”. It wants to instill Kiwi values of good governance, transparency, rule of law and democracy which is just fine with Fiji.

For his part, Mr Minister Bainimarama has spoken up for Ms Ardern on two occasions. The affirming rapport should augur well for Pacific regionalism.

China and New Zealand

China is another important focal point in the Pacific and its star has risen significantly after Australian Prime Minister Scott Mor­rison’s lacklustre performance in Tuvalu. Pacific countries have found assertive voices because of China’s support.

Countries like Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu go out of their way to actively speak up for Chi­na in the regional and global press. Samoan Prime Minister even told TVNZ that “Their enemies (Australia and its allies) are not our enemies”.

Vanuatu has even gone as far as to recognise China’s rights to the South China Sea.

With the largest wharf facility in the Pacific (being looked at with very keen interest) and their facilitation of West Papua going very well through UN processes, they also fancy their chances of being the cradle of Melane­sian civilisation, and by extension, the true hub of the Pacific.

Perhaps the biggest loser in the regional power play has been Indonesia. In the 2018 Forum Meeting in Nauru, Indonesian diplo­matic sources appeared to side with Nauru in the spat against Chinese diplomats.

President Baron Waqa like the authoritar­ian villain “Scar” in Lion King is “yesterday’s message” having lost his parliamentary seat.

West Papua was discussed at the Tuvalu Pacific Forum meeting and this displeased Indonesia.

Since taking office Ms Ardern has tended to go with the strategy of constructive en­gagement with China. In her China Summit Speech in May 2018 she admitted that, “natu­rally, there are areas where we do not see eye to eye with China”.

This is normal and to be expected with any country, especially where we have different histories and different political systems.

We can do this because we have a strong and a mature relationship – a relationship built on mutual respect; and a relationship that is resilient enough for us to raise differences of view, in a respectful way. This is a sign of the strength and maturity of our relationship.


New Zealand’s foreign policy strength boils down to Mr Ardern’s perception of her posi­tion. She is not overwhelmed by the power and trappings of being Prime Minister.

In January 2019 she was asked by former US Vice-President Al Gore what she would say to world leaders who didn’t believe that climate crisis is real.

“You don’t have to cede power by acting on climate change. There’s nothing to fear about your individual status … This is about being on the right side of history.

“Do you want to be a leader that looks back in time and say that you were on the wrong side of the argument when the world was cry­ing out for a solution? It’s as simple as that.”

The soft power approach that moves away from measuring economic growth mainly in terms of GDP towards a “wellbeing budget” that looks holistically at the health of ordi­nary people and their environment should auger well for the Pacific concerned about the urgency of promoting progressive policies on sustainability.


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