Dr Christopher Watkins and Dr Penelope Witt flew in last week, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
This is their first trip to the Cook Islands and like many first-timers, they had some expectations – which they still hope to experience when this crisis is over.
“In some ways it’s a sad time to come,” Watkins says.
“We have not heard Cook Islanders sing or seen them go to church, seen them play rugby and we know these are things that the culture is passionate about.
“But it’s an inspiring time to come because we have seen the community really come together and fantastic leadership from Prime Minister (Henry Puna) down in preparing for the crisis.”
Watkins is a career officer with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
He previously served overseas at the Australian Embassy in Iraq and at the Australian High Commission in Nigeria. In Canberra, he has served as senior analyst at the Office of National Assessments.
“I think the Cook Islands was the reward,” he says with a laugh.
“Our first reaction was delight and second was to Google images how it looks and we realised it’s paradise – and that made it even more exciting.”
But Watkins is fully aware this is no holiday for him. As the first resident Australian High Commissioner, he is conscious of the challenges he has in elevating Australia’s relationship with the Cook Islands.
“I have been sent here with clear instructions to firstly listen to Cook Islands about how it sees the region and how it sees the challenges and opportunities that it faces but secondly to elevate the relationship,” says Watkins.
“There is huge community of Cook Islands in Australia, many thousands, and it’s very strong bonds of affection which makes it very special appointment for me to be sent here because we not new friends, we are old friends.”
At the centre of this relationship is the push for free trade in the region led by Australia.
The Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (Pacer Plus) is a trade and economic integration agreement that aims to “create jobs, raise standards of living and encourage sustainable economic development in the Pacific region”.
Watkins is pleased Prime Minister Henry Puna has committed to this agreement.
He says at the time of crisis like Covid-19, they need deals such as the Pacer Plus for quick recovery of the economy.
“At time of crisis, you got some countries putting up the wall but for a quick recovery for the region it’s going to be very important that we have free trade and Pacer Plus will help that.
“We have committed some money to help Cook Islands maintain its relationship in the region during the transit period, $8 million over four years and of course we really think it’s important that Cook Islands is part of that growing regional economy once we get through this crisis.”
Watkins also says they are also aware of the Cook Islands’ developed status and the challenges it poses to the country.
“Australia understand the challenge of transitioning even in good times and this is difficult times.
“In the long term the whole region will need to work together to re-establish the links that we had to suspend and these links for Cook Islands is so important because of how important tourism is to your economy.”
For now, Watkins is ready to assist the country in whatever way possible during the coronavirus crisis.
He is based out of the New Zealand High Commission Office and is working closely with New Zealand because of their historic and constitutional link to the Cook Islands.
Watkins has thanked Cook Islanders for warmly welcoming them even in these challenging circumstances.
“Many people have told us they are frustrated they cannot hug, kiss, shake hands because it’s that sort of community here but we really look forward to the day we can go to the local church and hear the singing start again and that will be the sign that the Cook Islands is back on track.” – Rashneel Kumar
WHO IS HE?
Dr Watkins holds a Doctorate in Modern History and a Masters in Historical Research from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom; and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Melbourne. His partner Dr Penelope Witt studied music at Griffith University and the University of Tasmania, and Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne.