After a year at the helm of the region’s most eminent political body, Prime Minister Henry Puna says he is looking forward to spending more time at home.
“12 months is long enough,” he says. “I look forward to being home much, much more.”
Frequently slammed for his travel commitments, Puna estimates 80 per cent of his travel in the past 12 months has been in connection with duties as forum Chair.
With those responsibilities coming to end, Puna took the opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months as Chair of the Pacific Forum.
Just over a year ago, Puna inherited the title when the Cook Islands hosted the 43rd Pacific Islands Leaders’ Forum.
The sixteen regional countries that make up the Forumincluding 40 countries and international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bankdescended on Rarotonga last August, along with former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in what was described as the biggest international political event ever held in the Cook Islands.
Since then, Puna cites numerous achievements and milestones as Forum chair, including a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a visit to the US capital of Washington DC for Pacific Day 2013.
“We’ve become very strong friends with the US,” he says.
“It was a great opportunity for me, not just as Forum chair, but also as Prime Minister of the Cook Islands to engage with the state department in Washington and to share with them some of our views on a host of policy issues to do with the pacific, and in particular with the Cook Islands.”
Travelling to France in June to promote the region’s environmental concerns and climate change awareness also proved to be a fruitful trip, says Puna, who describes relations between the two countries as at “an all time high”.
What sticks out most though in Puna’s testimony is his role in promoting the Pacific region, and a pride in seeing the pace of development in the South Pacific.
A closer relationship was forged between the Cook Islands and New Caledonia, he says, which covered many areas – large and small.
As Forum chair, Puna was responsible for assessing the process of qualification for New Caledonia into the Forum – currently the country is described as an associate member.
Additionally, the PM oversaw and evaluated the progress by the French overseas territory in meeting the provisions of the Noumea Accord, which is described as the “agreed framework that allows for the people of New Caledonia to work towards greater autonomy from France.”
On a more micro level, the Cook Islands recently benefitted from a joint French and New Caledonian funded initiative which will be bring a French teacher to Rarotonga.
“That might appear to be a small assistance, but it isn’t really. It’s more the spirit we have to look at,” says Puna. “It’s a gesture of friendship and a gesture of wanting to help their new friends in the Cook Islands.”
Puna’s chairmanship also coincided with the 10th anniversary celebrations of RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands) – a multi-national assistance mission to the Western Pacific nation.
“It was so pleasing to see the people of the Solomon Islands come together to celebrate that important milestone,” he says.
“There seems to be a renewed awakening within the people of the Solomons to work together and keep their politicians in line and that the agenda is driven by the national interest.”
Complimenting his role as a regional figurehead, Puna has also been at work promoting the interests of fellow Polynesians – evidenced by his recent participation in last week’s Polynesian Leaders Group meeting in Auckland.
“I am a firm believer in sub-regionalism,” he says.
Linking the ties between the Cook Islands and close neighbours Tahiti, Samoa, Niue, and Tonga, Puna says “there are similarities, certain connecting factors”.
“That is why we have rallied under the banner of the Polynesian leaders group –to give recognition to our common heritage, our common culture and traditions.”
With obligations calling on Puna to travel to all corners of the globe to fulfil the mandate of Forum chair, he takes a deep breath before saying “it’s been a challenging year, but also very rewarding.”
This week, Puna will pass the chairmanship to Republic of the Marshall Islands President Christopher J. Loeak at the 44th Pacific Islands Leaders Forum in Majuro.
After a brief post-Forum stopover in Hawaii, Puna will be returning back to Rarotonga.
“It’s been a challenging year, also very rewarding,” he says. “But there’s a lot of work to be done here at home.”