China only too keen to fill the gaps

Top New Zealand politicians’ periodic flights into the Pacific Islands with media contingents and popular Pacific rugby players in tow have been a regular feature over the past several years. They are obviously meant to convey friendly concern for the people of the islands for consumption both at home and around the region. Such visits are often used as high profile platforms for announcements of new programmes and initiatives meant for the betterment of the islands and islanders. Last month New Zealand Prime Minister John Key led a delegation to Samoa, Tonga and Niue as the first of a series of visits into the Pacific Islands region scheduled this year.

As usual, the group comprised Members of Parliament from the major parties, ministers, officials and a media contingent. And as usual, there were the announcements and pledges of new money for new and ongoing projects, the social engagements, the communal dancing and partaking of food – and of course the photo ops and selfie ops. However, there was much to read between the lines in last month’s tri nation trip. And it’s more about New Zealand politicians’ own electoral interests than those of the Pacific’s. For one, it came just about three months before the elections in New Zealand due in September.

The Pacific Islander living in New Zealand is an important constituency for any political party in the country. Auckland has been labeled the world’s largest Polynesian city and people who trace their origins to the Pacific make a considerable portion of the electorate. The ruling National Party has never quite been the favourite of Pacific Islanders, who have traditionally been closer to Labour and National would like to pull as many Labour supporters as it can into its fold ahead of the elections, which it hopes to win for the third time in a row.

Opinion polls so far have consistently shown that it is likely to win comfortably, but given New Zealand’s quirky MMP electoral system, no chances can be taken. Unlike previous trips to the Pacific, which also comprised leaders from different political parties, New Zealand politicians quite clearly took their electoral battles with them to the islands during last month’s visits. It was Prime Minister Key who set the ball rolling clearly with a view to appease the Pacific Island voter in New Zealand. Delegates from the opposition were right to criticise him for using the overseas jaunt to score political brownie points.

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• We Say is compiled and edited by Samisoni Pareti

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