In a speech opening the inaugural Pacific Islands News Association CEOs summit in Auckland, Brown said: “We are comfortable in courting a range of external partners” and “it has become obvious to New Zealand that the perceptions held of New Zealand by Pacific leaders are changing.”
“Pacific leaders have grown confident, independent and assertive regionally and internationally,” Brown said, and that has steered New Zealand to resetting its engagement with Pacific Island nations.
“Whilst our Pacific islands are small, disparate and isolated, in reality they occupy a serious part of the world’s space, which is becoming more important every day.
“When the New Zealand coalition government announced earlier this year its intention to ‘reset’ the way it engages with its Pacific neighbours, my government committed to engage proactively in the process. The process is to ‘shift the dial’ on New Zealand’s foreign policy direction in the Pacific.”
Today is a very different picture than when the Cook Islands celebrated independence 54 years ago in 1965, the DPM said.
“For generations our people would defer to our colonial masters because they ‘knew better’ than us,” Brown said.
“Up until that time the colonial poobahs were the font of all knowledge and were the administrative heads of every aspect of government. And that belief was fostered over generations. This was the way for the children and the generations that came through the colonial days.
“It has taken generations to change that way of thinking.”
He said today the Cooks enjoys a special relationship with New Zealand and that “provides us the scope for statehood while we are a member of the Realm of New Zealand – a capacity to evolve and aspire under a condition of Free Association”.
“The Cook Islands-New Zealand relationship is one founded on close traditional and historical ties, unique constitutional arrangements, strong people-to-people ties and shared values that have endured and strengthened over time.”
New Zealand’s deputy prime minister Winston Peters spoke in Washington DC on the Pacific reset. In his address, Brown said Peters answered the question of why the Pacific is important to New Zealand.
“He stated that there are three reasons why New Zealand regards the Pacific region with such importance.
“First, Pacific identity and in particular, New Zealand’s Polynesian character.
“The second reason is national security. The modern world opens trans-boundary security challenges; including gangs; criminal deportations; drug production and distribution; cyber and financial crime; and aviation and border security. New Zealand’s national security is directly affected by the Pacific’s stability.
“Thirdly, shared prosperity. Pacific Island countries with improved economic and social well-being create opportunities for themselves to improve their resilience and self-reliance.”
Brown said the Pacific has become a contested strategic space.
“We are no longer neglected by Great Power ambition and so we have more options. These facts are creating a level of strategic anxiety.”
He asked: “What does this all mean to the Cook Islands? Will it change the way we work?
“To be frank, I anticipate that it will not unduly change the way that the Cook Islands works, but it may have an impact on the way New Zealand engages with the Pacific region, depending on the translation of the commitment into the Pacific reset and the shifting the dial.
“I stress this as it relates to traditional donor-recipient relationships.”
Brown said in that regard, the Cook Islands undertook its “reset” a number of years ago.
“We have over the years undertaken significant and at times painful reforms to own and design our development agenda and to lead the development outcomes for our people.
“I am thankful that today we have Cook Islanders who do believe in themselves and in our country, and who do have the courage and the knowledge of their convictions to be innovative and to buck the trends and to challenge the norms and to understand that Pacific challenges, in that each Pacific nation’s issues, can only be addressed by solutions that are bespoke and unique and most importantly designed and implemented by ourselves as Pacific Islanders.
“Today, we have an evolving development agenda, articulated by our people and delivered by Cook Islands systems in partnership with NGOs and the private sector and where relevant, supported by regional and international development partners.
“I am also extremely proud of our robust systems. In fact, our Ministry of Finance and Economic Management is the first and so far, the only government agency that has been accredited to directly access climate financing from the Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund.
“In my view, a Pacific reset by New Zealand for the Pacific requires a responsive development agenda delivered through national processes and national systems.”
Brown said the Cook Islands wholeheartedly supports the Pacific reset because New Zealand’s principles to steer Pacific diplomacy are ‘understanding’ the Pacific better; demonstrating friendship, including honesty, empathy, trust and respect; mutual benefit; collective ambition with Pacific partners and external actors on a shared understanding of what we are trying to achieve; and importantly sustainability.
“Without a doubt, New Zealand has comparative advantage among development partners working in the Pacific as a consequence of history and its Pasifika New Zealand resident population. What better way to ‘reset’, than use this advantage to deliver to the Pacific.
“We are very pleased with New Zealand’s approval for Cook Islanders to collect their New Zealand superannuation at home. This has been achieved through genuine dialogue and a commitment by New Zealand to understanding the Cook Islands context related to this issue.
“Concrete action such as this, is what the reset is about.
“From a Cook Islands perspective, we are pleased with the signals we are seeing on the Pacific reset. We await eagerly the shift of the dial moving Pacific relationships beyond donor/recipient interaction and into genuine, mature political partnerships.”