Cooks PM eyes a year at the Forum helm
‘We’re a unique region of unique cultures’
“After 12 months, I feel like I’m only just getting warmed up!” As he closes off a year at the helm of the region’s highest-level body, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna has only just arrived in Honiara—and he is already packing his bags to leave.
After a full-on two days of activities across the Solomon Islands’ capital celebrating RAMSI, he will simply not have time to get back to his hotel and make the flight back to New Zealand which will connect him to Rarotonga and a day of meetings and appointments later before heading to the Northern Island constituency, which voted him into power.
So busy has his travel schedule been of late, the local press have not been the only ones to pick up on his absence, raising the usual questions over usefulness, cost, accountability and the necessity of travel for their Prime Minister.
“I keep reminding our people that we hosted a very successful forum last year. Whilst we can bask in the glory of hosting such a successful event, there’s also the obligation that goes with that,” Puna says of his travel duties as chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.
He passes on that hat to the Republic of the Marshall Islands President Christopher J. Loeak in Majuro next month at the 44th Pacific Islands Leaders Forum.
As to whether he expects debate to heat up more than usual over the expected tabling of a major PIFS review consultation, he remains neutral.
“I haven’t seen the results yet, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m aware of the major weaknesses already identified in the Pacific Plan, amongst them the multiplicity of objectives. It’s all become too much.
“So the real challenge is for us leaders to agree on a set of narrow objectives that are of interest to all of us because if you have them, it makes it easier for us to achieve and set milestones for their achievement.”
Whether in Japan co-chairing the PALM summit, in Washington as the keynote speaker for Pacific Day, in New Caledonia to assess progress on the Noumea Accords, or in Paris for the Oceania 21 initiative, he says he has gained an ‘overwhelming’ appreciation of the region’s development priorities and the need to speak and be heard on issues that matter.
Amongst the issues of pressing importance—climate change, fish, and trade top a list of priorities where Puna agrees his legal experience helped him get past the national platform and speak for a region on mission travel as chair of the region’s highest-level regional body.
“It helps,” he says of his legal background, “but I think the greatest attribute one has to bring to the role is the need to respect all parties regardless of their status. You give respect. You show respect. You get respect. It’s not a one-way thing. And to always have empathy”.
Asked to reflect on some highlights of the last 12 months, Puna says the Washington talks gave him an impressive up-and-close look at the seat of the world’s largest democracy and allowed him to share his assessment of regional priorities during his watch as Forum chair.
“I was totally overwhelmed to start with but began to enjoy it. I realised I was there because of the job the Cook Islands had done in hosting the 43rd Forum, and so my country and people gave me the confidence. In a sense, it has driven me in the past 12 months in my role as Forum chair. I’ve grown in confidence in speaking for the region and our country. When you are there as Forum chair, the world listens.
“The main issue for the (United) States is China. I was asked why we are doing business with China, and basically the message I gave them was: ‘Why aren’t you there for us to do business with you? If you are not there—you are not there’”.
When it comes to fish—the Pacific’s only real point of economic engagement with the US, Puna recalls are the lengthy negotiations in PNG late last year over the future of the US Treaty; and the performance of PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in helping to gain traction and progress for the treaty talks.
Another gap in US mainland and large ocean thinking is the concept of sub-regionalism, says the Forum chair.
“Some people including Washington have this idea that the growth of sub-regionalism via the MSG, the Polynesian Leaders Group, and now the Micronesians, is signalling the slow breakdown of the Forum. I disagree. Their positions are based on assumptions that are not correct.
“There’s a lot to be said for sub-regionalism. It allows groupings of similar interest to deal with issues that may not be relevant to others, which can be better dealt with amongst a community of friends. If we use sub-regionalism to cultivate closeness with our neighbours, there are solutions we can find that we wouldn’t otherwise find in larger, regional spaces. Sub-regionalism is here to stay. I love this region. I love the Pacific. We’re a unique region of unique cultures. We have our differences and certainly, right now, climate change is the theme uniting us all.”
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