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Dunne Speaks: Chatham Islands

Dunne Speaks

2 May 2014

Time out is often a great way to refresh one’s sense of perspective.

I have spent the last few days on the Chatham Islands where the problems and issues of Wellington have seemed far away as we discussed the reality of life for the 600 or so souls who inhabit the main island. For example, our visit to Pitt Island coincided with the arrival of the supply vessel, which mean that about 30 or the island’s 50 residents gathered on the local wharf to welcome it and watch as their supplies were offloaded.

Back on the main island much interest in recent days has focused on the towing of a barge containing a large crane over to Pitt to assist with the reconstruction of the island’s wharf. The tow was the main topic of conversation in many of our meetings, and the sense of relief palpable when the tow began, and especially when it was completed successfully.

These stories may appear trivial to some, but their predominance is an inevitable focus of life on small isolated island communities, where the sense of engagement will always be that much stronger.

Discussions with local people drive home a real sense of reality: the quest for opportunity, and the high cost of living. Fuel and energy costs, for example, account for well over half most household budgets, and there is the inexorable drift of population west to New Zealand for education and employment.

In these circumstances one might be forgiven for anticipating a sense of expectation that New Zealand is a sugar-daddy to hand out largesse to the Chathams as required, but that is absolutely not the case. I saw a strong sense of self-determination and pride, with the prevailing wish that the Chathams should shape their own destiny, then work in partnership with New Zealand to achieve that.

Now all this raises questions about New Zealand’s current approach. We have carved out a fine record in recent years in our relationships with many of our Pacific neighbours, with whom we have enduring relationships, based very much on providing practical assistance and material aid to assist them achieve their priorities. We are justifiably proud of what we have done in this space, and rightly so.

This is the same spirit and tangible approach we need to follow with the Chathams. They are, after all, an inalienable part of our country and our closest offshore territory, excluding the islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

My time on the Chathams was enjoyable and inspiring, and a welcome relief to the psychoactive substances drama I have been dealing with in recent weeks. As one of the locals said to me before I boarded the plane, “you’re lucky, we have no legal highs here, we just go for the real stuff!”


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