During a whistle-stop tour of Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised a ‘reset’ of Pacific policy. She says her government can and will do better in the region. Speaking at the Lowy Institute in Australia on March 1st, Foreign Minister Winston Peters stressed the need to ‘shift the dial’ on New Zealand’s Pacific policy. But beyond a few new projects to build roads, provide cyclone relief, and assist small businesses, and a sensible revision to rules about portability of pensions, what is really likely to change as regards New Zealand’s Pacific policy?
Much of Mr Peters’ Lowy Institute speech offered the familiar warm words about New Zealand’s distinctive Pacific identity, but he also indicated considerable ‘anxiety’ about China’s presence in the region. Bearing hallmarks of continuity rather than change, Mr Peters echoed the focus of his predecessor on ‘sustainable economic development’. That prioritization has been contested by some critics of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully’s aid policy, who prefer instead a focus on poverty alleviation and social welfare.
Reinvigorating MFAT’s Pacific capacity makes good sense, as does more aid spending in the region, but on what should this be spent? ‘Sustainable economic development’ sounds fine in theory, but in practice it can mean just about anything: from New Zealand-funded renewable energy projects designed to reduce Pacific oil import dependency; to the ill-fated scheme to build an international airport in Munda in the western Solomon Islands; to subsidies for Air New Zealand flights from Samoa to Los Angeles.
Too often over the past decade, for both Canberra and Wellington, aid spending has been largely supply-driven and calibrated to generate merely the impression of lightning quick success stories. Where China has offered more or less solid infrastructure, including roads, bridges and buildings, New Zealand and Australian aid is frequently criticized by island leaders for being spent on a gravy train of whistle-stop tours by highly paid consultants who file obscure reports that no one ever reads. For both countries too, there exists a preference for aid projects that deliver commercial benefits for New Zealand or Australian firms. China does that as well, albeit through a more opaque tendering process.
On the more idealistic edge of policy, Mr Peters’ Lowy speech upheld New Zealand’s ‘traditional emphasis’ on ‘human rights, the rule of law, transparency, good governance and the promotion of democracy’. That approach, mostly shared with Australia, is often contrasted with China’s policy of non-interference and preparedness to engage with undemocratic regimes. Yet how effective has ‘good governance’ promotion been? The answer is not straightforward.
Since de-colonization, the Pacific Islands have mostly embraced a kind of democracy: holding regular free elections; keeping the judiciary relatively independent and the media mostly free. The glaring exception has been Fiji, with its history of coups, constitutional crises and media censorship. Other island states have faced severe challenges, but all bar Fiji have avoided lengthy periods of authoritarian rule.
New Zealand and Australian influence has most effectively been informal and indirect, mainly through well-connected citizens resident in Pacific urban centres. Many islander elites were schooled in New Zealand, and carry those connections throughout their lives. Shared use of the English language – as well as church connections – ensure an enduring commonality, as do kith and kin links with migrants to New Zealand. In the island capitals, there are many who resist the periodic efforts of would-be despots to delay elections, hobble the judiciary or harass journalists. Most of these would be urban cosmopolitans who have lived in, or travelled frequently to, Australia, New Zealand, Europe or North America.
Direct government to government pressure on democracy issues has also been significant, though less effective in the larger and more economically robust countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea than in the micro-states. Threats of sanctions or setting governance conditions on aid have, occasionally, been announced, but mostly not sustained, as in the case of Fiji after the December 2006 military takeover. Most pressure has been behind the scenes, through the missions. There have been stellar and well-connected New Zealand diplomats with lengthy Pacific expertise, but some ambassadors operate too much like 19th century missionaries. Too often in the past, Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers have publicly and privately told Pacific Island leaders how to govern their own countries or condescendingly treated their counterparts like errant children.
In the 21st century Pacific island leaders have, understandably, become more hostile to foreign politicians who admonish them for embracing poor governance standards or for being seduced by the baubles of Beijing. Earlier this year, Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells accused China of building ‘roads to nowhere’ and ‘useless buildings’ in the Pacific. Samoa’s Prime Minister called the remarks offensive, and said island leaders were better equipped to decide on preferred aid-partners and viable projects. He pointed to difficulties experienced in Samoa’s negotiations with traditional partners, particularly during the era of aid cuts.
The popularity of ‘good governance’ in the lexicon of aid donors is often only imagined to reflect an enlightened values-based foreign policy. In practice over the last decade, it has mostly entailed a shift in the way foreign aid itself is administered. Accountability mechanisms have been put in place, and professional contractors have turned aid into big business, enabling politicians and the relevant ministries to play a more arms-length and risk averse role. The biggest impact on governance has thus been domestic, rather than out in the Pacific Islands. In the islands themselves, there have been numerous worthy Australian or New Zealand or United Nations-funded projects on democracy promotion, civic education, assisting parliaments or other accountability institutions, electoral assistance, or efforts to increase women’s representation, but these have usually not been the central focus of aid programmes.
Resetting New Zealand’s Pacific policy is not only about aid or its governance. It is also about responsiveness, respect and greater familiarity with pressing issues. The latter include the management of Pacific fisheries, responses to climate change and closing Australia’s dreadful detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru (which have done much to undermine the credibility of external ‘good governance’ pressures). The interminable PACER-plus (the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations) trade negotiations have so far delivered nothing owing to the refusal of the governments of the larger economies (Papua New Guinea and Fiji) to sign up, but also due to a reluctance on the part of Australia and New Zealand to concede to island pressures to embrace greater mobility of services (including labour mobility) as well as goods.
New Zealand’s Pacific policy is indeed in need of a reset, and the commitment to expanding aid and beefing up MFAT’s diplomatic capacity offers a good start, but there await plenty of thorny issues that the new government may find as difficult to navigate as its predecessor.
Jon Fraenkel is Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Facebook page.