Analysis: New Zealand is speaking with a quieter voice than usual at the annual Pacific Islands Forum leaders retreat this year because of the lack of a new government after the election.
Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, speaking on behalf of the caretaker Labour government, and National’s representative, Gerry Brownlee, arrived in Rarotonga on Tuesday local time for the summit. At a briefing before departing from Wellington, they insisted their shared attendance meant New Zealand was speaking with one voice. That’s helped by the fact that on most Pacific issues the two big parties are aligned.
However, after a meeting with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, Sepuloni conceded she had less power to make commitments than she would otherwise.
“Occasionally at these meetings, not often, there may be decisions or asks of us that are made on the fly. I certainly won’t have the discretion to make decisions on the fly in that kind of way, so it is important that we are well-briefed by our [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade] officials, that Gerry and I are speaking closely and are in close communication around things,” she said.
“Because of the transitional phase that we’re in, you’re less likely to see something unexpected, I guess.”
Does that mean the pair’s power to advocate for New Zealand’s interests is limited by the current state of affairs?
“There is still the ability to make decisions and to make calls. Where there is uncertainty, then I think it’s fair and reasonable to expect that there may be a wish from us for a deferral of a decision,” Sepuloni said.
Brownlee agreed, saying it was “not unusual at all”.
Though the two did speak with one voice on some issues – they both insisted in unison that it was unfair to say New Zealand had backed Japan over its Pacific neighbours on the issue of the release of water from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant into the ocean, when questioned by a reporter – they did run into some roadblocks even on day one.
Asked whether New Zealand supported a moratorium on deep sea mining, after Brown discussed seabed exploration at length in the bilateral meeting, Sepuloni said she couldn’t answer because of the transitional arrangements, and Brownlee said he wouldn’t make any comments about it at the forum.
Climate is also likely to pose problems for the incoming government. Six Pacific countries are advocating hard for the Port Vila Call for a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific, which includes ending fossil fuel exploration. Labour ended offshore exploration for oil and gas in 2018, but National has pledged to restore it.
Pushed on the issue, Brownlee said Pacific countries wouldn’t comment on New Zealand’s domestic policies, just as he wouldn’t comment on theirs.
Then there’s climate finance for the Pacific. The Labour government announced $1.3 billion over four years in climate-related aid in 2021, most of which is earmarked for the Pacific. Brownlee said National would maintain at least those levels in the future, but as the original pledge was funded from the Climate Emergency Response Fund, which National plans to disestablish to pay for tax cuts, he couldn’t say how the $650 million a year rate would continue.
In any other scenario, the incoming government might be pushed hard on these subjects by Pacific leaders. But Brownlee doesn’t speak on behalf of the New Zealand government, just the party likely to be at the centre of the next one. He isn’t attending the overnight leaders retreat (Sepuloni is) and instead has a handful of bilateral meetings with representatives from non-Pacific Island nations.
In fact, besides the meeting with the Cook Islands Prime Minister on Tuesday, there is only one other formal bilateral meeting scheduled with a Pacific Island Forum member. Sepuloni and Brownlee are due to meet the Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele on Wednesday morning, although media are not able to attend even the opening remarks.
Were a new government in place by now, a much larger array of meetings would probably have been scheduled, to start establishing the relationship between the National Party and Pacific leaders.
Instead, the current arrangements mean Sepuloni is New Zealand’s official representative, but in an obviously lame duck capacity, while Brownlee is somewhat sidelined.
This is particularly important because the summit in the Cook Islands is the first time in several years that non-Pacific dialogue partners are attending. Some 21 non-Pacific countries have sent delegations, including a high-powered American delegation led by the US Ambassador to the United Nations. At a time when the Pacific is the focus of increasing geopolitical pressures and tensions, New Zealand is unable to speak with a clear, authoritative voice.
The situation in Rarotonga also raises red flags for the Apec summit next week. If a new government wasn’t in place by then, Brownlee said, he would be attending that meeting in a similar capacity as his attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Apec will be a much higher-stakes event for the region, with world leaders including Joe Biden and Xi Jinping expected to attend. Christopher Luxon will be incredibly chagrined if ongoing coalition negotiations with New Zealand First and Act mean New Zealand’s presence at this critical summit is similarly ineffectual.