A group of MPs from the Labour and National parties have been chosen to visit Vanuatu and Solomon Islands but before they went Daniela Maoate-Cox asked why the trip is necessary.
Hopping on a plane to a warmer climate sounds like a nice holiday but for a group of MPs its a chance to learn more about New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours.
The trip to Vanuatu and Solomon Islands is the first New Zealand Speaker led delegation to this part of the Pacific but it’s not about having a holiday.
“Our Parliamentary links with Vanuatu and The Solomons are good one way, people come here quite a lot, but I don’t think our Parliamentarians have a good understanding of what happens there” said the Speaker Trevor Mallard.
Speaker’s delegations have often been focused on Europe, Asia, or the Americas but the Speaker said he wants to do shorter trips focused on “a couple of countries that develop a good knowledge of them and if they work then I think we’ll hear more and more comment about them and probably more demand from members of Parliament to go on them too.”
New Zealand has some trade and local interest in the Pacific but it also has interests in “having friends” he said.
“The Pacific Islands are our neighbours and are mainly our friends but sometimes we take them for granted."
He said it’s in New Zealand’s interests to foster a relationship with Pacific nations to set up support for things New Zealand might want to do in the future and it’s important “we not only have contact when we want something but that we develop the relationships so those common interests are understood.”
“There are clearly some issues which we think are important around making sure that our aid systems work, around how our parliamentary democracies work.”
The group of nine MPs will have the chance to meet their parliamentary counterparts, form relationships, and see first-hand how New Zealand’s relationships with Vanuatu and Solomon Islands work.
Some quick facts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website (using some statistics from 2016).
Trade totals $34.8 million between NZ and Solomon Islands (about three percent of New Zealand’s trade in the Pacific).
Total trade in goods is $52 million with Vanuatu (Vanuatu is New Zealand’s seventh largest trading partner in the Pacific).
Solomon Islanders and Ni-Vanuatu come to work in New Zealand’s horticulture and wine industries under the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme (RSE), of which Vanuatu sends the most.
New Zealand’s High Commission in Vanuatu recently commemorated 30 years in the nation.
About 2000 New Zealanders were deployed to during the 14 year long Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) which ended in June 2017.
New Zealand’s formal relationship with Vanuatu began after it gained independence in 1980 whereas New Zealand’s earliest connections with Solomon Islands dates from 1849.
“New Zealand has contributed a lot to Vanuatu’s infrastructure development as well as the human resource development,” said the Vanuatu High Commissioner Johnson Naviti.
“I hope both sides of the house are going so they can see for themselves the impact of the support that New Zealand taxpayers are supporting Vanuatu in terms of infrastructure, human resource development and recently humanitarian support after the cyclone and volcanic activity that has been going on.”
The group is made up of a mixture of MPs from the Labour Party and National Party and includes all the presiding officers (the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and two Assistant Speakers).
Among them are newer MPs who haven’t been to the Pacific before like Labour MP Jan Tinetti who said she is looking forward to better understanding how New Zealand’s aid works in the Pacific.
“This is one trip that I really wanted to go on so it’s the only trip I put my name in for,” she said.
“I was excited when I’ve never been to the Pacific at all before, so getting over there and seeing the different people, how they live and the particular issues involved.”
Jan Tinetti has an education background and said she will be paying attention to how schools in the Solomon Islands benefit from New Zealand aid.
National MP Matt King is also new to these types of trips and like Jan Tinetti he wants to see how aid from New Zealand functions in the country it’s given to.
“I understand that we commit quite a bit of aid and assistance to the Islands and I want to go and see some of those projects and the difference it’s making,” he said.
“We definitely want to see where we can get the best bang for buck over there...when we’re coming back here, we’re discussing or deciding what we’re going to do [and] it’s really good to have that background knowledge of first-hand experience so that we can go, ‘that’s right’, or ‘that’s wrong’...you have to go over there to do that.”
Half of the delegation are women and the Speaker Trevor Mallard said it’s “something that’s quite important”.
Representation of women in Pacific Parliaments is amongst the lowest in the world and Solomon Islands High Commissioner Joy Kere said the presence of women MPs, including the Deputy and Assistant Speaker, will make an impression.
“There are major challenges that women in Solomon Islands face although currently, we have two women who are members of our current parliament,” she said.
Solomon Islands’ next general election will be held in March 2019 so its Parliament will be dissolved in December.
Joy Kere said a lot of women have already indicated they will stand for election.
“We hope that through such a visit and with our women members in the New Zealand parliamentary delegation we can hear from their experiences. Following on from that we could look at establishing a Pacific Women in parliament network that could be an ongoing programme from New Zealand to Solomon Islands.”
Women in parliament is part of the focus of the trip for Assistant Speaker Poto Williams.
“I’ve been speaking with her excellency (Joy Kere) about opportunities in the Solomons with the elections coming up next year to meet candidates and see how we can support them.”
Poto Williams is also a member of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians and said they’re focused on ensuring there are opportunities for Pacific Women to be in Parliament.
“Being a parliamentarian is actually working parliament to parliament, to support the structure that will bring women not only into parliament as parliamentarians but into the institution itself, so there's opportunity for us to look at administrators and clerks for example.
She said these trips are vital for New Zealand to build and maintain connections.
“We are a region and we need to be strong. It’s important for us to build understanding because we all as nations have difficult times and we need to know we’ve got other nations who’ve got our backs.”
“We are part of the biggest area of water and there are issues around climate change, there are issues around fishing, there’s a whole lot of things we share so we have to have good relationships with each other to be able to discuss these issues in an ongoing and useful way.”
MPs travelled to Vanuatu and Solomon Islands between 30 September and 5 October.