Christopher Luxon won’t attend Pacific Islands Forum in order to form government

New Zealand Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon will not attend next week’s Pacific Islands Forum because he will be busy forming the next Government.

Luxon made the call during a media stand-up in Auckland today, telling journalists he wouldn’t be able to leave for Rarotonga on Wednesday as he would likely still be in coalition talks with Act and potentially New Zealand First.

Current Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni would go in his place as the representative of the New Zealand Government. National’s Gerry Brownlee, a former Foreign Affairs Minister, would also be attending in an observer role.

It’s not the first time Brownlee has been called upon to attend the forum. In 2017, he went on behalf of then PM (now Sir) Bill English, who was busy with the election campaign.

Experts say Pacific Islands leaders will largely understand Luxon’s absence, even though it came at a time when unity in the region was under pressure.

Brownlee told the Herald Sepuloni would be attending the leaders’ retreat while he would be holding meetings with representatives of the 15 countries that were not in the forum but still involved in the event.

It wasn’t yet finalised who he’d be meeting with, but Brownlee confirmed he would be speaking with the United Kingdom representative.

Brownlee acknowledged it was disappointing circumstances had precluded Luxon from taking part, but he was confident Sepuloni would conduct herself well.

He suspected it was his experience with the foreign affairs portfolio that had informed the decision to select him to attend the forum.

Asked whether it indicated his desire to become the next Foreign Minister, Brownlee said he would not speculate.

Massey University senior lecturer Dr Anna Powles, who studied geopolitics, security and conflict in the Pacific, said while New Zealand needed to be present at such events, there was a precedent of leaders prioritising domestic matters.

“That will be understood by leaders but there’s also a sense that given regional unity is under pressure in the forum, New Zealand and the new National-led Government need to come out of the gate demonstrating that it is deeply committed to the Pacific and to New Zealand’s role in the region as well.”

Powles said it was a “curious” situation to have Sepuloni, as a member of a caretaker Government, attending a global leaders event.

She believed Sepuloni was “well-respected” in the Pacific but would be limited in what she could say about New Zealand’s future foreign policy priorities.

“It does place her potentially in a tricky position and we can appreciate that New Zealand’s foreign affairs officials will be doing a lot of groundwork and providing a lot of assurances… about continuity and prioritisation of the Pacific.”

Sepuloni was not available for comment Thursday.

Powles was not aware of Brownlee’s reputation in the Pacific. However, she said it would be a good opportunity to meet other leaders if he was set to be the next Foreign Minister.

Asked who she thought should attend, Powles said NZ First leader and former Foreign Minister Winston Peters could be an option given he was “well-known and well-liked” in the region. Powles did acknowledge that it was not likely Peters would go.

Dr Iati Iati, Pacific security fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, said Luxon’s absence might have been considered a “slight” under normal circumstances, but he believed Pacific leaders would understand.

“There’ll be plenty of other opportunities between now and then to build relations.” Iati said Sepuloni would be respected by other leaders for her achievements, while Brownlee would be regarded similar to what a “high-ranking member of the New Zealand Government deserve.