21 Oct 2013

NZ foreign minister standing firm on withholding tourism aid to Tonga

5:57 pm on 21 October 2013

New Zealand's foreign minister says he will keep withholding tourism funding to Tonga until a plane gifted by China is certified by what he calls a 'respected international authority' - despite China insisting it is safe.

In July, New Zealand suspended US$8 million in tourism aid to Tonga amid safety concerns with the domestic MA60 aircraft, and has issued a travel advisory for New Zealanders using it.

Murray McCully says he has spoken to Chinese authorities and understands their concerns.

But he says the aircraft is not certified in New Zealand or a comparable jurisdiction.

MURRAY McCULLY: The MA60 isn't certified to fly in New Zealand or Australia or the US or the EU, any of the comparable jurisdictions. So it's something we would want to see established according to the normal international standards.

SALLY ROUND: Now, New Zealand has issued a travel advisory for New Zealanders travelling to Tonga because of the MA60. Why not issue an advisory to those other 20 countries where that plane flies?

MM: Uh, well, the information I have is that there are very countries where this plane flies and it's gone out of service in one or two places quite recently.

SR: Apparently it flies in 20 countries.

MM: I don't know whose information you're working from there. All I can say is we've had the issue raised as part of an integrated project on the tourism front. It's important that there should be internal air services within Tonga for the tourism project to proceed. But obviously we'd be regarded as remiss by the New Zealand public if we didn't insist that the accepted international safety standards are met.

SR: So will you be looking at putting travel advisories out for those other countries?

MM: Well, I'm not the person who writes the travel advisories. It's a particular issue that came up in relation to Tonga because that's where significant New Zealand tourism numbers go, and I think the travelling public would take exception to the New Zealand public not drawing their attention to these matters. But that's not something that I write on a case-by-case basis. It's something that the ministry attends to as part of its normal duties, advising the New Zealand public on travel destinations.

SR: China insists that this plane is safe. It's pretty angry at New Zealand's stance, from information we've received. Aren't you worried about upsetting one of New Zealand's largest trading partners?

MM: I discussed this matter directly with Chinese authorities when I was recently in Beijing. I understand their position on it and they understand ours. Ours is simply that we would want to see certification in the normal way for a plane that isn't certified to travel in New Zealand or in comparable jurisdictions. There's nothing extraordinary about that. I make no judgement about the air-worthiness of the plane. I simply say that those who are qualified to make that judgement should be asked to do so.

SR: So they're not upset with New Zealand on this, the Chinese.

MM: Well, the Chinese obviously want to defend the reputation of the aircraft, that's perfectly understood by us. That doesn't change the fact that I want to see a respected international certification process being undertaken in respect to this plane if it's going to attract funding from the New Zealand public.That's what we're talking about. We're talking about New Zealand taxpayer's money being employed in an integrated tourism project in Tonga and internal air travel is an important part of that capability. I think New Zealand taxpayers would take an entirely dim view of us not insisting on international certification for the plane.