Creating travel bubbles with Covid-free Pacific islands – especially those that are our so-called ‘realm countries – should be a no-brainer, says Peter Dunne, perplexed at why it is taking so long

Since 2018 New Zealand has been steadily changing the nature of its relationship with Pacific Island states. Under the policy, known as the Pacific Reset, New Zealand has been seeking to move towards a more equal relationship with Pacific Island states, based around partnership, not just the provision of aid.

The new emphasis was to be on building better and more lasting political partnerships; ensuring New Zealand’s domestic policy decisions took potential implications for Pacific states into consideration; strengthening regional Pacific organisations; and generally fostering better understanding, friendship, and sustainability.

When the Minister of Foreign Affairs reported back to Cabinet on progress during the first year of the Reset he noted that “the Reset has helped shift regional attitudes about New Zealand’s commitment to and focus on the Pacific.” 

He advised that future priorities would include, amongst other things, a stronger emphasis “on advancing collective solutions to shared challenges” in areas like economic resilience, healthcare and climate change.

However, since those fine sentiments were expressed barely two years ago, things have not been running quite as smoothly, and the notion of partnership has seemed to be drifting back more towards the old unequal relationship the Pacific Reset was supposed to overcome.

While New Zealand continues to utter worthy words about its commitment to climate change policy, the reality, especially regarding vulnerable Pacific Islands states is somewhat different. The United Nations Secretary-General has recently described the situation in the Pacific as “heartbreaking”.

“It is one thing to hear about rising sea levels and the devastation climate change brings to communities and nations; it is another to see it first-hand, to see the impact on people’s lives, to meet children who are anxious about their futures. I saw with my own eyes the deep challenges that vulnerable small island developing states are facing,” he said.

He has also suggested that Covid19 provided an opportunity for a “green recovery” in the Pacific, but that would require economic support. This is the type of response that might have been envisaged as coming within the scope of the Pacific Reset but there is so far little evidence of substantive New Zealand actions to back up the rhetoric, mirroring a complaint now growing internationally about New Zealand’s climate change responses.

Last year there was a significant outbreak of measles in Samoa and other Pacific Islands. By early this year there had been over 5,700 cases detected and 83 deaths recorded in Samoa, the worst affected of the Pacific states.

While Samoa’s low vaccination rates were undoubtedly a major contributory factor to that country’s high number of cases, there was criticism of New Zealand for being the source of the epidemic’s outbreak and subsequently for what was seen as a tardy response – even though New Zealand provided medical and nursing staff and other equipment and funded the provision of over 100,000 vaccines.

In that instance, the issue was more that having been identified as the likely source of the epidemic, New Zealand should have been managing its border better to protect vulnerable Island states from the incursion.

However, this year with the outbreak of Covid-19, the situation has been the virtual reverse of the measles epidemic.

Strict border control in New Zealand has meant that the number of cases recorded here has been very low by international standards. In turn, the suspension of most international travel has meant that the Pacific Islands have been free of any spread of Covid19 from New Zealand. In our so-called realm countries – Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands – and in Samoa, there have been no cases of Covid-19 recorded. But all have been affected by the closure of New Zealand’s borders.

For all these countries inbound tourism, substantially from New Zealand, is the major industry. For example, Niue, with a population of around 1,700 people normally receives around 1,500 visitors a year from New Zealand. It is a similar pattern for both the Cook Islands (population around 17,500, but normally more than 100,000 visitors a year from New Zealand) and Samoa (population just under 200,000, with around 103,000 New Zealand visitors a year).

In all these countries, Covid19 has effectively closed down the tourism industry altogether, despite the fact that all have been free of Covid-19 from the outset.

That is why the issue of the establishment of a travel bubble with the Cook Islands has become so perplexing.

It should be a no-brainer, and it is easy to understand the mounting frustration of tourism operators who see empty resorts and no income, despite the facts that they have no Covid19, and their major tourism source – New Zealand – has eliminated domestic community spread of the virus.

Consistent with the commitments in the Pacific Reset to “advancing collective solutions to shared challenges” and promoting economic resilience the establishment of a free travel zone – or “bubble” to use the increasingly grating and horrible colloquialism – should have been done months ago.

So why should the approximately 20,000 New Zealand citizens in the realm countries be treated differently from the 10,000 New Zealanders living on our closest offshore islands?

The Government’s dithering smacks of a resurgence of the old paternalistic “we know what is best for you” attitude that the Pacific Reset was supposed to be about overcoming.

The residents of the Cook Islands – like those of Niue and Tokelau – are New Zealand citizens, and entitled to be treated the same way as other citizens of this country. Yet access to and from the Chatham Islands, Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands, and Stewart Island, all of which have also recorded no Covid-19 cases, has been no different from the rest of New Zealand.

So why should the approximately 20,000 New Zealand citizens in the realm countries be treated differently from the 10,000 New Zealanders living on our closest offshore islands?

It hardly smacks of “the renewed commitment to and focus on the Pacific” the Pacific Reset was supposed to be all about, nor shows any commitment to the United Nations Secretary-General’s call for countries like New Zealand to be helping Pacific Island states meet the challenges now posed by climate change.

Some time ago the Prime Minister gave strong hints that quarantine free Cook lslands travel access would be in place by Christmas, but then that was during the election campaign.

Today, we are told it is still going to happen, but not just yet, and a firm date seems as far away as ever. And, we are told, a similar process is about to get underway with Niue.

At the same time as this unsatisfactory situation dawdles on, we are now being offered the prospect of quarantine free travel across the Tasman by the end of the first quarter of 2021. According to the Covid-19 Response Minister, the only major holdup is giving the airlines time to gear up for this, even though Air New Zealand and others say they would be ready to fly the moment the announcement is made.

The recent bawling out of New Zealand for the lack of real action to match its rhetoric to deal with climate change, the declaration by Parliament of a Climate Change Emergency notwithstanding, is symptomatic of an emerging international view that, under this Government, New Zealand likes to spend more time talking about its intentions and plans than actually delivering upon them.

It follows the trend established early on in its term with KiwiBuild. Now, the reopening of our international borders, even on an initial limited regional basis, looks like following the same pattern – a lot of inspirational and aspirational waffle about what is going to happen, and how difficult it all is. And, even then, eventual delivery is likely to fall well short of the expectation created by the original promise.

On that note, it is time to stop the commentary for this year, and to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a better 2021 to come. 

Leave a comment