Whenever I hear Governments and politicians talk about the back yard of the nation they represent, I think about the global footprint of that nation – ours, the United States, whomever. These elected representatives and policy makers talk about “back yards” in terms of areas of the world where their nation has influence draws benefits – economic and so forth – from.
When I think about this in a New Zealand context, I am of no doubt that the South Pacific is our back yard. There are however numerous politicians who feel that our backyard for whatever reason is in the Middle East. They are wrong, not just in terms of how New Zealand views the South Pacific, but in terms of how the South Pacific nations view New Zealand in return.
Let us do a roll call of New Zealand’s neighbours so everyone knows which nations I am talking about. We have Cook Islands, Federation of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Niue, Palau, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. Some of these nations are tiny in terms of land mass, but vast in terms geographical distribution. Some only have a few thousand people, a Gross Domestic Product in the order of tens of millions of dollars as opposed to New Zealand’s $200 billion economy. Their land mass is very vulnerable environmentally, not just from development, but climate change and a raft of other issues such as deforestation.
Some of these nations are bordering on political dysfunction such as Papua New Guinea. Others, such as Fiji have had – or currently have – dictatorships. And then there are Monarchies such as Tonga. A few of these nations still have the death penalty on their books of law as a legitimate punishment, despite none having used it recently. All of them have weak laws on corruption and law enforcement officials are open to bribery.
Some of these nations are fighting for their very survival – and losing. This is not from military invasion or economic melt down or internal disorder, but from being atoll nations on the top of extinct volcanoes that have long since eroded into the sea and have left a stack of coral behind as the only evidence they ever existed. On top of these fragile piles at almost sea level and prone to tidal flooding on a twice daily basis – never mind the cyclone season – are nations such as Kiribati.
But these nations, are New Zealand’s neighbours and we need to as a country do substantially more than our current foreign policy permits, to assist them. Proud and just island nations reminding us of our Pasifika heritage, of the people who arrived on out rigger canoes all of those many moons ago. We poach their rugby players to make up the All Blacks, and only just over a year ago we did Samoa the courtesy of playing an All Blacks test in Apia – sad but true. They make up large portions of our population and I would imagine most if not all of my New Zealand and Australian readership probably went to school with someone from one of these island nations. I went to school with Fijian, Tongan, Samoan and Kiribatian descent. My supervisor at work is Rarotongan in descent. I am a better person for meeting these people.
Let us look after our back yard and learn to work with these fragile nations. We need them as much as they need us, because in this uncertain world, they are the potential weak link in our security. In a climate where Australian priorities seem to be ever more United States oriented, New Zealand can gain from being the leading player in the South Pacific. In climate where China is striving to gain global influence, these island nations need to know they can rely on their bigger neighbours for help.