It was three months ago at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu that Pacific leaders called for Australia to be ousted from the Pacific’s main regional meeting.
After Australian prime minister Scott Morrison rejected calls to pull back on dirty coal mining, Forum chairman Enele Sopoaga said he was stunned by Morrison’s attitude: “that Pacific leaders should take the money… then shut up about climate change.”
But a week is a long time in politics, and three months an eternity. Yesterday Prime Minister Henry Puna announced he had accepted the Australian prime minister’s invitation to visit as a guest of the Australian Government.
This coming week’s visit will be Puna’s first official one as Cook Islands Prime Minister, but is the climax of a series of high level engagements in recent years – in which Australia has said it will open a High Commission here.
“At our most recent meeting in the margins of the Pacific Islands Forum held in Tuvalu, we committed to holding more regular meetings,” Puna explained. “I welcome this early opportunity to hold substantive talks with Prime Minister Morrison in Australia.”
The two Governments will discuss economic co-operation around sectors like tourism, trade and investment, and strengthening cooperation on security.
That will include maritime surveillance and climate change – areas where New Zealand last week promised to step up engagement in the Pacific. Fisheries, education, sports, and arts and culture would also be on the agenda.
Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne was in Rarotonga in July, where she was briefed on Cook Islands effort in maritime surveillance and on the progress in maintaining and managing police patrol boat Te Kukupa. Te Kukupa is 30 years old, and is to be replaced by the Australian government with a new Guardian-Class Patrol Boat in 2022.
“The Cook Islands and Australia have a long history of co-operation, shared interests and values at bilateral level and in regional fora,” Puna said.
“And I look forward to meeting with Prime Minister Morrison, Foreign Minister Payne and Australian Ministers to follow up our prior discussions and how we can together focus a stepped up and expanded program of bi-lateral co-operation and regional collaboration that supports our shared and separate development interests.”
The meeting will be watched with interest by Cook Islanders, and by Australian who live here or visit here.
Cate Walker is one such Australian: the Brisbane woman is presently on Aitutaki, on the latest of a series of visits in which she has worked closely with Cook Islanders to research soldiers’ graves.
As a frequent visitor to the Cook Islands, she said, climate change and rising sea levels were a major concern.
These were a major concern across the Pacific as well, she said, and she hopes the Australian Government would support the Pacific in fighting climate change.
Foreign Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann confirmed the Australia relationship has assumed elevated importance in their work over the past three or four years, and this coming week’s Australia mission was a culmination of that.
For the Cook Islands, graduating to “high-level income status” in 2020 meant we would have to re-invigorate our work to engage internationally, and sometimes be innovative. This would be needed, to support national resilience strengthening and economic diversification without undermining cultural values and conservation stewardship responsibilities.
“This Australia mission affords a critical opportunity for both governments to better understand each other,” she said.
Puna will follow up five days of official engagements with two days meeting Cook Islands residents in Australia on November 16 and 17. He will attend the Australian Te Maeva Nui celebration to be held in Melbourne.
The Maeva Nui celebration will bring together Cook Islands cultural groups from across Australia – there is now more than 15,000 Cook Islanders resident in Australia.