NZ PM's decision to skip Pacific Forum summit criticised
Critics say the Prime Minister of New Zealand's decision to skip Pacifc Islands Forum will leave a bad impression with our Pacific neighbours.
Critics say the Prime Minister of New Zealand's decision to skip a Pacific leaders' summit will leave a bad impression with our Pacific neighbours.
John Key has announced he will not be attending the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Palau at the end of July, as it is too close to New Zealand's general election in September.
This year's meeting is expected to cover the thorny issue of lifting Fiji's suspension, in light of its elections scheduled for later this year.
JOHN KEY: As with all families the ties that bind us together are very strong and with all families we have our disagreements but as true today as it was 40 years ago that the things we have in common are much stronger than those that separate us.
Prime Minister John Key speaking at the opening of the Forum leaders meeting in Auckland in 2011, when he was chair.
The meeting is a yearly opportunity for Pacific leaders to meet and discuss a range of issues, including trade, politics, and climate change. This week, the Prime Minister's office said it was decided Foreign Minister Murray McCully would attend the leaders' meeting this year and he will also represent New Zealand at the Small Island Developing States Conference in Samoa. It said the forum is a very important annual event for New Zealand and most years the Prime Minister makes a point of leading the Government delegation. The Tongan MP and academic Sitiveni Halapua says Mr Key should be going this year.
SITIVENI HALAPUA: I believe it is very important that he should go because I understand previous Prime Ministers of New Zealand have sometimes [had] much closer elections, sometimes a few weeks, but they still attended.
Dr Halapua says New Zealand and Australia are two of the strongest leaders in the region.
SITIVENI HALAPUA: It's more important now for New Zealand to attend because now Fiji is planning an election and a return to democracy and New Zealand and Australia play an important part in that in the region.
The Labour Party's spokesperson for foreign affairs, David Shearer, agrees.
DAVID SHEARER: At the end of the day of the day this is a meeting of leaders and John Key is the leader and it is right that he should go and meet with the other leaders. It will create, I believe, a bad impression amongst other Pacific Island nations.
This year the forum is expected to canvas the possibility of allowing Fiji back into the fold. The forum suspended Fiji in 2009 after the regime reneged on an earlier promise to return the country to an elected government. John Key has already signalled New Zealand would support Fiji's return, providing it holds democratic and fair elections. But David Shearer says Mr Key shouldn't miss the forum's discussions on Fiji at such a crucial time.
DAVID SHEARER: We have had a pretty tough time with Fiji over the last few years. This is a make or break election coming up with Fiji. It is going to be a very very important conversation about what should happen to Fiji and New Zealand needs to be represented at the highest level.
But a former diplomat in the Pacific says if Mr Key's absence is a one-off then it shouldn't be considered a big deal. Michael Powles, who is a senior fellow at Victoria University's centre for strategic studies, says it's critical New Zealand's Prime Minister not make a habit of it.
MICHAEL POWLES: Because there is no record of New Zealand ignoring the forum or taking it lightly, I don't think it will go down that badly. If he were again Prime Minister in 2015 and didn't go then, then I think there could be grounds for quite serious criticism.
He says it's important leaders in the region have a regular opportunity to meet and discuss their common problems.
MICHAEL POWLES: I personally don't think one should underestimate the importance of leaders of small, isolated countries being able to get together to talk about their issues.
Michael Powles says he doesn't think John Key's absence signals the forum is becoming less relevant.
To embed this content on your own webpage, cut and paste the following: