Incoming New Zealand High Commissioner Joanna Kempkers has been in the Cook Islands since 2012, when she began her duties as former High Commissioner John Carter’s deputy.
She formally began her new job this week a day after Carter flew to New Zealand where he plans to contest the mayoralty of the Far North.
Kempkers, a career diplomat, has extensive experience in the Pacific region, including stints in Fiji as deputy and acting high commissioner and special advisor for New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Pacific division.
Rounding out her regional experience, Kempkers has also worked as a Pacific region trade advisor.
In an introductory interview with CI News, the shortest answer she gives is when she’s asked how she personally feels about her new role.
“It’s exciting,” says Kempkers, who lives in Rarotonga with husband Timothy John Markwell and their three children, Frederik, 12, Beatrice, 9, and two-year old Matilda.
The family appears to be living the dream here in Rarotonga.
All three children are involved in school activities, and the family is actively involved with the Rarotonga Sailing Club.
The family is also nursing a couple of recently-orphaned baby goats at their Nikao home.
When it comes to work though, it’s acknowledged by many that the expectations will be high.
Carter was an omnipresent figure during his term, attending meetings, school events, business gatherings, and conversing with cultural and religious leaders.
Can we expect to see Kempkers doing the same?
“They’re obviously big shoes to fill, but I’ll do it in my own style,” she says of the social commitments. “It’s the nice part of the job.”
Another characteristic of Carter that Kempkers would like to adopt is his “open-door policy”. During his term he was known to lend an ear to nearly anyone and was acknowledged for his helpful nature.
“I hope to continue that,” she says. “Whether it’s a cabinet minister who wants to discuss a new policy idea, or a Cook Islander who’s been to university in New Zealand and wants to work out the best way to pay off their loan.”
Kempkers, reiterating previous comments, says she wants to think strategically about the relationship between the Cook Islands and New Zealand, including bilateral relations and aid delivery.
“It’s a really close relationship, and we have to work at it,” she says.
Regarding aid, she says a priority is to continue her office’s involvement in the New Zealand aid program, which has just finished the first of a three-year cycle.
At $90 million over a three-year period, assistance is delivered in many areas including waste and sanitation, tourism, education, and infrastructure, such as Rarotonga’s intensive Te Mato Vai water project.
Kempkers also says she is also willing to deal with the difficult questions currently facing the country.
Questions like those put out to the public by Murienua by-election candidate James Beer.
In late May of this year through a letter to the editor, Beer pondered over the nation’s direction in governance and asked: “By most measures has the Cook Islands experiment in autonomous government succeeded? Can we say we have managed the affairs of our sovereign nation successfully?
Pausing briefly to think about the nature of the question, Kempkers speaks on the issue.
“I wouldn’t put it into stark terms like that,” she says. “It’s a serious question for Cook Islanders to consider, and it’s a question that needs to be discussed with New Zealand because of the constitutional ties between us.”
“New Zealand has always said if the Cook Islands wants to pursue independence, we would always support that, but New Zealand is very happy to have the Cook Islands as part of the realm.”
It will be an interesting term for Kempkers, as the country enters an interesting epoch, roughly two years away from the nation’s 50th anniversary of self-determination in free association with New Zealand.
“What does the Cook Islands want its population to look like in 10-20 years?” she asks.
“If substantial mineral wealth comes in, people will want to move here.”
The Cook Islands may very well be a different country by the time Kempkers is finished her first term as the New Zealand High Commissioner.