Colin Tukuitonga: Why New Zealand needs to step up in the Pacific

by Guyon Espiner / 30 April, 2015

Colin Tukuitonga. Photo/Simon Young

New Zealand needs to step up if it’s to retain its influence in the region, says the Pacific nations’ chief advocate, Colin Tukuitonga.

Colin Tukuitonga is not here to extend warm Pacific greetings. Oh, sure, he looks the part: the aqua-coloured short-sleeved shirt with swirls of green Pacific print; the kind, open face and the smooth round head with tufts of silver hair at the sides. His demeanour is welcoming. His message is brutal: New Zealand is failing Pasifika people – in the region and at home.

Tukuitonga, formerly a top-flight public servant as New Zealand’s public health chief and later chief executive of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, heads the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). The SPC is the oldest, largest and most powerful Pacific organisation you’ve never heard of. It is nearly 70 years old, represents 22 Pacific Island states and territories and has 600 staff and a budget of about $130 million. Because it does the gritty technical work – in such areas as health, energy, minerals, agriculture, fisheries and water resources – it attracts little media attention.

But Tukuitonga is starting to make some noise. Things need to be said. Clearly there is trouble in the family. Some 70% of people in the region don’t have electricity. Climate change, still a theoretical issue for many New Zealanders, is a matter of life and death. Obesity-related illnesses are killing people in their forties and fifties. Poverty blights much of Melanesia. People in Papua New Guinea have an average life expectancy of just 54 years.

New Zealand likes to think of itself as a leader in the Pacific, but according to Tukuitonga, its leadership has been found wanting in the face of these challenges. So much so that the SPC is looking to strengthen ties with the European Union (EU) and to form new relationships with Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE). New Zealand, he says, is slipping off the radar in its own backyard. The Cook Islands has even indicated that it is looking at renouncing New Zealand citizenship to pursue new global relationships. How did things come to this for New Zealand, which claims to be a Pacific powerhouse?

New spheres of influence: Dubai. Photo/Thinkstock

Follow the money

First, there’s the small matter of money. Or more precisely, the matter of a small amount of money. Odd as it may seem, the SPC’s largest funder is the EU, which provides close to half its budget. New Zealand’s contribution is a paltry 4.45%.

“It’s a fairly small amount of money, so much so, in fact, that we’re now looking elsewhere. We’re having potentially good relationships with the UAE because it wants 14 votes from our region at the UN, and increasingly New Zealand might slip off the radar because the Pacific leaders, particularly led by Fiji, are looking elsewhere,” Tukuitonga says. “They are looking to the Arabs, to China, to Korea, and if New Zealand wants to retain its place as the big influence in the Pacific, it has to step up.”

He recounts his conversation with the Cook Islands Prime Minister. “He said, ‘Do you know, I am actually thinking seriously of giving up the New Zealand citizenship, the New Zealand passport,’ because it’s really hampering their opportunities.” The message is the same from other parts of the Pacific. “The leaders in the region are saying, ‘We want to look elsewhere, we can’t just simply continue to rely on Wellington.’”

China has a growing Pacific presence but so far is being rebuffed by the SPC, which doesn’t accept its money. “I think the whole relationship is fraught with difficulty. I recognise that China is in the region. It’s not about ‘Should we or should we not work with China’ – of course we should – it’s a question of how we do it.”

The EU is another matter. “I want a long-term relationship with the Europeans, which is what I am chasing. By that I mean a 10-year partnership with the European Union.” He says EU support for sustainable fisheries, renewable energy, climate-change action and human rights makes it “the sort of partner that really resonates with our own priorities”. He’s looking for something similar in the Middle East. “I would like to be able to do that with the Arabs before the year is out – the UAE in particular. And when we secure those relationships you have to then say, ‘Wellington is hard work and for what?’”

In his view New Zealand should be contributing twice what it does to the SPC. “I would think that doubling that is not unreasonable given the historical place of New Zealand. The Cooks, Niue, Tokelau – those people are New Zealand citizens and they’re getting lower levels of services than the citizens on the mainland.”

New spheres of influence: Beijing. Photo/Thinkstock

Storm clouds

At our first meeting for this article, I meet Tukuitonga in Central Auckland and he spends much of the morning telling me how urgent the issue of climate change is in the Pacific. This is before Cyclone Pam has lashed Vanuatu. He’s worried that New Zealanders still see climate change as an ideological or moral crusade for the future rather than something that is happening now.

“We have, right now, communities being shifted or forced to move. It’s not just a theoretical discussion. We’ve been supporting a community in Papua New Guinea to move its people from coastal areas away from the coast,” he says. “It’s now and real. While people are arguing at the global level, we’re working with communities already affected by climate change. It’s not an insignificant impact. These are people who have to think about what do we do with ancestors’ graves because the water is already eroding where they are buried. What do we do with our crops?”

When we speak for a second time, he’s at the SPC headquarters in Noumea, co-ordinating the SPC’s Cyclone Pam response. The storm has set Vanuatu back 10-15 years, he says. “Without question this is directly attributable to climate change. The events in Vanuatu should leave people without any doubt that they need to take action.”

But action is not what he’s seeing from New Zealand on climate change. “The general feeling I get from the region is that it is disappointing.” He’s looking for New Zealand and Australia to take specific emission reduction targets to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this year and says New Zealand must also consider its stance on climate refugees. A recent court case by a man from Kiribati resisting deportation from New Zealand on the basis of being a climate refugee was unsuccessful, but Tukuitonga says the issue will not go away. “Kiribati has bought land in Fiji already to move its people to. This is not a theoretical discussion. This is a real one that is happening already.”

New spheres of influence: Seoul. Photo/Thinkstock

Shoals everywhere

Heading the SPC means navigating a labyrinth of bureaucracy and competing interests. As well as the 22 Pacific nations, four of the founding countries – New Zealand, Australia, France and the US – are also members and it has the legal status of an international organisation under the Canberra Agreement of 1947. But Tukuitonga is comfortable behind the wheel of a large public organisation. He was director of public health at the Ministry of Health in 2001, and spent three years working to prevent chronic diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva from 2003 and five years heading the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs in Wellington from 2007.

“In Wellington, you sometimes wonder what on earth you are doing and whether you are really making a difference. Whereas in this role, we find some money and we stick some solar panels on the roof of a school and the kids have electricity for the first time in their lives. I don’t know if people realise seven out of 10 people in the Pacific have never had access to electricity. They don’t know what electricity is.”

The SPC focuses largely on the basics. Tukuitonga’s criticism of New Zealand foreign policy in this interview is rare – you don’t often find the SPC entering the political arena. “We stick to the technical and scientific stuff and stay away from the politics,” he says. The Pacific Islands Forum, in contrast, gets media attention as a platform for political arguments such as how to deal with Fiji during its period in the democratic wilderness. Fiji’s post-military coup suspension from the forum in 2009 was widely reported, while the SPC went quietly on with its work. “It got kicked out and [Australia and New Zealand] said, ‘You won’t get any more aid money’, but in the meantime they give money to us and we help Fiji.”

So flying under the radar has its advantages – but pitfalls too. “The guys do excellent work every day in the islands, but nobody really knows the work we do,” says Tukuitonga. That’s partly why he’s talking to the Listener – to bang the drum for more recognition and, yes, more money.

In this regard, his Auckland visit seems partly successful, New Zealand having just announcing an extra $4.4 million for Pacific agriculture, public health and geoscience over the next two years. That brings New Zealand’s total SPC funding to $18.3 million for the period 2014-2016.

A tortuous tale

So why should New Zealand listen? Why should we care? Tukuitonga answers with a story. “A Tongan woman, mid-fifties, has a relative in Auckland, arranges for a temporary visit knowing full well she has renal failure, doesn’t declare it and ends up at Middlemore Hospital.” The hospital is, of course, obliged to give treatment. “Once you do that you are then caught in this moral dilemma of whether you turn it off or not,” he says. “That is why we are saying that New Zealand needs to take a much greater level of interest in the Pacific. Because when people turn up in Middlemore, it’s too late.”

But the story has complex origins. Trade and globalisation have swiftly and dramatically changed diets in the Pacific. Tukuitonga, a former director of global obesity research for the WHO, is more blunt: “It’s the importation of highly processed crap. Even in Tonga, half the food is imported because we have this dilemma that on the one hand you want to encourage free trade and development, but unfortunately the things being free-traded are rice and flour and fizzy drinks and tinned fish.”

He says New Zealand needs to do more than simply push a free-trade agenda. “The problem is people are taking fresh fish and taro to the market, selling it, taking the money down to the shop and buying tinned fish and rice.” Imported food often has a higher status, such that he sees Coke cans on remote parts of the Solomon Islands.

Pasifika people in New Zealand are struggling with obesity too. Two-thirds of Pasifika adults in this country were categorised as obese by the Ministry of Health last year. Tukuitonga finds government policy in the area frustrating. In 2009, the then Education Minister, Anne Tolley, scrapped a guideline requiring schools to sell only healthy foods. The Dominion Post story at the time quoted the minister as saying, “It’s not teachers’ responsibility to act as food police … If we want to start changing behaviour, that’s got to start happening at home.” But Tukuitonga believes measures to promote healthy food in schools work partly because children influence their parents.

“But somehow it was aborted and so instead the kids are getting deep-fried junk they eat at school. So they think it’s normal. So before school or after school, they have a big bottle of fizz and a meat pie and they think that’s cool food. It’s like smoking. It was only when it became antisocial that the impact happened. We are not yet there with food.”

There are numerous other gauges of the economic and social struggles Pasifika people face. Tukuitonga is particularly worried about declining home ownership among younger Pacific migrants. “The first cohort, the folk that came in the 60s and 70s, bought houses in Grey Lynn and they’ve been able to use that equity. For the more recent young ones, home ownership rates have gone backwards.”

In general, he says, Pasifika people are stuck. “Overall, it’s fair to say that the Pacific population in New Zealand are pretty much where they were 10 years ago.”

Land of milk and honey

Which raises the question of whether they will keep coming to Auckland? “Absolutely. “That’s the unfortunate thing about human beings. It’s not a rational process. They still have this vision of it being this fantastic place and they don’t actually understand that their relatives who are in South Auckland aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. They’re unemployed. The vision of Auckland from the Islands is still one of milk and honey.”

How would he advise a young Samoan man thinking about going to live in Auckland? “Unless you have qualifications and job prospects, don’t even think about it,” he says. “Coming to New Zealand believing they can get a job and earn a lot of money is a pipe dream.” He recounts conversations he’s had with young people in Niue, where he was born. “I say to them, ‘If I was unemployed in Auckland, I would be on the next plane back to Niue, where I own land.’ There I can do what I want. I can fish and have a reasonably good quality of life and standard of living. Sure it’s not the same, but a pretty good standard of living in Niue instead of being unemployed.”

It’s not going to stop them coming though, is it? “No,” he says, laughing, “it’s not.” He falls silent and the smile remains – not because it’s funny but because of the optimism and the hope of people seeking a better life. Perhaps it’s a smile of recognition. After all, that’s his mission; that’s what he wants for them too.

This article was first published in the May 9, 2015 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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