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Laban: Pacific Cooperation Melanesia Symposium

Hon Luamanuvao Winnie Laban
Minister of Pacific Island Affairs
Associate Minister of Trade

30 September 2008 Speech

Pacific Cooperation Foundation’s Melanesia Symposium
Victoria Room, Mercure Hotel, 355 Willis Street, Wellington

Talofa Lava, Malo e lelei, Ni sa bula vinaka, Bonjour, Gud de tru olgeta, Halo olketa, Gud dei long yufala evriwan, Fakaalofa lahi atu, Namaste, Kia Orana, la Orana, Taloha ni, Talofa, Kia ora tatou and Warm Pacific Greetings to you all this morning.

Thank you to Isabel Evans for your kind introduction, and to the Pacific Cooperation Foundation for the invitation to speak. I am delighted to be with you today to open the Melanesia Symposium.

I would like to thank you all for being here for this valuable and timely discussion on pathways to the future for Melanesia and New Zealand, made even more so by the strong representation from the region.

The region is one New Zealanders needs to do much hard thinking about – and that will benefit greatly from the strong representation here today from Melanesia.

I would particularly like to acknowledge:
• Sir Rabbie Namaliu – former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
• Sir Albert Palmer – Chief Justice of Solomon Islands
• Kaliopate Tavola – former Foreign Minister of Fiji
• All our other overseas guests
• Sir Paul Reeves - former Governor-General of New Zealand, Members of Parliament, members of the Diplomatic Corps and Neil Plimmer, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Pacific Cooperation Foundation.

Today I want to do three things:
• Explore why Melanesia matters to New Zealand;
• Discuss briefly some of the 21st century challenges which confront Melanesia’s people, leaders and partners;
• And outline what this government is doing to enhance and deepen New Zealand’s partnership with Melanesia.

As a woman of the Pacific I prefer a story to a powerpoint presentation. I would like to start my tok talanoa, by locating Melanesia within the wider stori of the Pacific.

Albert Wendt, the master Pacific story-teller, once wrote: “So vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope, if not to contain her, to grasp some of her shape, plumage and pain.”

We often recognise the wonderful, colourful plumage of Oceania - the Pacific. We find it harder to recognise the pain. To start to understand the Pacific region, to understand Melanesia, we have to open up our imagination, to move beyond mundane facts'.

Why Melanesia Matters
Melanesia matters because of its place, its people, its politics and its potential. Increasingly it demands and deserves the attention of New Zealand’s politicians, policy makers, NGOs, churches, humanitarian groups and business community.

Melanesians are people of the Pacific – they are our neighbours and kin.

And the evident interest in this conference suggests widespread recognition that the more successful Melanesia is, the better that is for the rest of the Pacific – and for New Zealand.

Geographically Melanesia sits astride important lines of communication and approach to our very near abroad.

Eighty-five per cent of Pacific people live there, on 95 per cent of the landmass of the entire region.

In comparison with some parts of Polynesia and most of Micronesia, Melanesia is richly endowed with minerals, energy, and agriculture and forest resources.

Its diverse habitat is critical to global biodiversity.

Like elsewhere in the Pacific it has substantial fisheries.

Regionally and internationally, it is recognised that the active participation, leadership and consent of Melanesia is essential to the Pacific Islands Forum’s effectiveness.

Melanesia’s challenges
In contrast to these strengths, Melanesia’s challenges are regularly described. And nowhere are they more fiercely argued than in Melanesia itself.

Population growth through the region is uniformly high, and over the last fifteen years has well outstripped economic growth.

Youth unemployment is growing and basic poverty indicators are poor by any global measure. Education and health trends are troubling - as is their impact on children.

HIV/AIDS, malaria, the re-emergence of TB and pandemic threats such as avian flu and dengue fever, are a brake on the region’s potential.

A toxic mix of climate change, population increase and land tenure issues undermine growth and stability, and are an emerging risk to food security.

Law and order issues are very real in some parts, posing a risk to citizens and an impost on those willing to invest. Extra-legal actions by domestic security forces have threatened governments in the region on several occasions.

And to be blunt, corruption seems endemic and undermines governance at almost every turn.

In combination these factors pose clear and present danger to the ability of states in the region to provide for their people and ensure national viability.

But this litany of challenges is easily arrived at. What’s more at dispute is the root causes of these challenges, and how the governments and people of the region, and their international partners, can and should respond.

Grappling with that issue - where and how we can make a difference - is what underpins the Labour-led government’s significantly expanded engagement and commitment in Melanesia over the past nine years.

Changing New Zealand’s approach
New Zealand’s historical relationships with Melanesia go back over one hundred and fifty years to the Melanesian Missions. This connection is both enduring – and for many of us deeply personal.

My great grandfather Sumeo and his brother Timoteo were the first two Samoan ministers to travel to PNG with the London Missionary Society. Both are buried in PNG.

In a more formal, governmental sense, the region’s increasing importance in New Zealand’s Pacific thinking is reflected in our stepped-up representation in Port Moresby, Honiara, Port Vila and Suva.

Regular consultations and high-level visits have increased over recent years. Those exchanges provide the platform to build the sort of partnerships which are critical to making progress on the many issues which inextricably bind New Zealand with Melanesia.

And personal relationships are core to making those connections work – which is why it’s important we have so many leaders and opinion shapers from Melanesia with us today.

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of meeting with a range of Melanesian leaders, including the former Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Ham Lini, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Dr Derek Sikua, and most recently PNG Minister Dame Carol Kidu.

People to people links have also diversified in recent years.

Central to that has been the Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) Scheme which was launched in April 2007. Workers from Melanesia have been quick to impress New Zealand employers, with their enthusiasm, adaptability and willingness to work hard.

Over 2,000 Melanesians have already come to New Zealand to work through the RSE scheme, taking millions of dollars home with them, and we hope, positive memories of their time in New Zealand. The Labour-led government is committed to that continuing.

Pacific governments have also been working to strengthen regional structures for cooperation, particularly through the Pacific Islands Forum.

The Pacific Plan has evolved into the organising framework for regional development priorities and is already bearing fruit in meaningful ways. The contribution of Melanesian countries is pivotal to the successful advancement of the Plan.

The opening of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Secretariat in May this year provides another focus for our engagement with Melanesia.

The MSG has the potential to complement the Pacific Islands Forum and to strengthen the work of both organisations.

We have already seen this in the way Melanesia has played a leadership role in maintaining Forum unity on Fiji.

In Niue last month, Melanesian leaders joined New Zealand and the rest of the Pacific in expressing disappointment at Fiji’s lack of progress towards restoring democratic government. Forum Leaders reaffirmed the importance of the interim government honouring the undertakings it made to hold an election by March 2009, and to accept the outcomes of that election.

Melanesian Leaders have spoken out strongly on this issue, and PNG has offered to host a special meeting of Forum Leaders before the end of the year to discuss possible measures that may need to be taken.

Economic and business links with Melanesia are also expanding and I want to acknowledge here the contribution that the business councils have made in driving that - including through initiatives like the Pacific Trade Expo, which is held every two years by the New Zealand Pacific Business Council.

The collaborative approach between the New Zealand/Pacific and New Zealand/PNG Business Councils is an excellent example for New Zealand, and I’d suggest Melanesia, of private sector interests working together for mutual benefit.
That willingness to paddle in the same canoe has contributed significantly to the success of the trade missions I have led as Associate Minister in recent years to Fiji, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

And some of the results are evident in the growth over the past decade of New Zealand’s goods trade with Melanesia which increased from $385 million in 1997, to just over $610 million today.

That’s a 58 per cent increase.

Melanesian countries represent about half of New Zealand’s goods trade with the entire Pacific region.

In 2007, 91 per cent of New Zealand’s Pacific imports came from Melanesia.

MSG countries recognised the importance of enhanced regional trade and economic integration for their own economic and social development when they signed the MSG Trade Agreement in 1993. Fiji joined in 1998.

MSG countries are also parties to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, PACER. This promotes greater economic integration of Forum Island Countries within the region, and into the global economy, in a way that supports Forum Island Countries’ sustainable development.

The original PACER agreement foreshadowed an eventual reciprocal FTA between Australia, New Zealand and the FICs, known as PACER Plus.

The experience of Melanesian countries under their own MSG trade agreement means that they are amongst those most interested in the potential benefits that might flow from this agreement.

Melanesian countries also play a major role in the Pacific tuna fishery, currently worth around US$3 billion a year, with significant investments in domestic fishing capacity and on-shore processing.

However, fishing for a number of tuna species is now at unsustainable levels and reductions in the levels of overall fishing effort are required as a matter of urgency.

Having attended the Forum Fisheries Agency Ministerial meeting in Nadi in 2006, I have seen first hand the cooperative relationship that New Zealand enjoys with Melanesia on fisheries issues within the FFA and also the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

The past decade has also seen greater recognition of the importance of working together to tackle common security problems, including preventative collaboration on emerging threats such as trans-national organised crime.

Effective regional cooperation was essential to the peaceful resolution of conflict in Bougainville and the return of law and order in Solomon Islands. In both missions police and military personnel from Melanesia have, through their cultural and language skills, provided a critical and Melanesian “value-add”.

The work of New Zealand peacemakers has been complimented in Bougainville by the work of New Zealand NGO's. Eighty Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) Kiwi volunteers have served in Bougainville in the last ten years.

A new pathway
Access to the basics of life that most New Zealanders take for granted, such as the ability to go to school, receive health care and live in a safe community, are still dreams for many Melanesians. With help from its friends the countries of Melanesia can, and will, start to realise some of these dreams.

It is entirely appropriate therefore that Melanesia is the focus of New Zealand’s international aid and development efforts.

In the context of a growing aid programme, the last five years have seen a major reassessment of New Zealand’s effort to assist Melanesian countries overcome the challenges of poverty.

Our development assistance programmes with Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are now the largest New Zealand has ever managed.

By 2010/11 New Zealand’s assistance to Melanesia will total around $100 million annually. Individually, the Solomon Islands will total $41 million, Papua New Guinea $30 million, and Vanuatu $20 million per year

This will represent an increase of over 200 per cent in spending in the region in just seven years.

While the dollar figures are one way to illustrate our commitment to development in the region they do not tell the whole story – for it is people who are at the centre of development.

I want to talk about people and how this assistance touches lives.

A woman in Papua New Guinea is fifty times more likely to die in childbirth than in New Zealand.

New Zealand is supporting a range of efforts to strengthen the functioning of the PNG health system through a multi-million donor funding contribution and engagement. This includes staff training, strengthening management financial systems, and implementing new processes for tracking supplies of medicines.

We also support a number of community-based health care projects across the country – training villagers, mostly women to serve as primary health care providers and help their communities to improve their health and general standards of living.

New Zealand’s effort in Solomon Islands is focussed on education and growth.

Four years of conflict had left education services in Solomon Islands in tatters. Even now, only 70 per cent of children get an education – and usually a very limited one.

New Zealand has got behind the Solomon Islands government’s policy to rehabilitate and reform the education system and, in particular, to provide nine years of quality basic education to all children. We have injected $10 million annually into the government budget to pool our resources with theirs.

This support has enabled the government to deliver teaching materials to all primary schools, restart in-service training, build and stock new schools and classrooms and begin to address shortcomings in teacher management, training and development.

New Zealand’s aid programme relies on our people – New Zealanders transferring their skills and knowledge to communities and strengthening the capacity of local organisations.

The partnership between NZAID and Volunteer Service Abroad facilitates this people-to-people connection.

I recently learnt about a volunteer who spent 3 years living in Vanuatu working as a community law advisor to the Wantok Environment Centre. The purpose of this assignment was to help the locals develop plans and regulations to manage their natural resources – including the precious coconut crab.

Through this exchange of ideas and expertise, the community was able to make decisions on how customary law could be used to ensure sustainability and protect their environment for generations to come.

What I hope is clear from these examples is that New Zealand is committed to long-term engagement with Melanesia reflecting our common aspirations for a safe, secure and prosperous Pacific future.

Final Thoughts
Over the course of today you will hear from speakers representing the many voices of Melanesia.

The Tok Talanoa gives all a chance to listen, to discuss pathways to the future for Melanesia and to ensure New Zealand’s many connections and contributions promote and support development in the region for the benefit of its people – and ours.

My challenge for the New Zealanders here is to draw the best of those ideas together in a coherent and practical set of recommendations.

In closing I am pleased to officially declare the Melanesia Symposium open.

Gud de tru olgeta!


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