A senior Cook Islands official says she understands incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon’s decision to prioritise forming a government over attending the Pacific Islands Forum this week.
Despite acknowledging the forum’s importance, Luxon has said he would stay in New Zealand “to make sure we get a strong, stable government” and has instead sent National foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee to represent the incoming government.
Cook Islands secretary for foreign affairs and immigration Tepearu Hermann told RNZ Pacific leaders would understand.
“Of course we’d love to have every foreign leader here, but these are very busy people, who have to prioritise domestic considerations.”
University of Waikato law professor Al Gillespie said he believed Luxon’s absence was a mistake, and he could have taken the time out to attend and show New Zealand was sincere in its relationship.
“That face-to-face contact in the Pacific is very important. We’ve spent the last three years saying how important it is to make greater effort in the Pacific. And right now, taking a day or a day-and-a-half over a very busy agenda would be time well spent.”
Because the government has not been formed in time for the forum, New Zealand will be represented by outgoing deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni on behalf of the caretaker government, with Brownlee accompanying her.
Brownlee said it would not have been appropriate for Luxon to go along as an observer, but there was no question of the incoming government’s commitment to PIF and the Pacific.
“I think Mr Luxon himself was very disappointed not to be going, and he’s made that pretty clear to me. He has, however, in the last few months, met a number of Pacific leaders and would want to make that one of his early priorities for getting out around the world, to make clear that New Zealand sees the Pacific as a very big priority for us.”
While at PIF, Brownlee will attend a plenary meeting as well as conduct several bilateral meetings with representatives from forum countries or some of the other countries observing.
Sepuloni, meanwhile, will represent New Zealand at the Leaders’ Retreat. She is expected to endorse the implementation plan for the Forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which addresses matters of climate, security, and prosperity.
She said both she and Brownlee had a shared agenda to ensure the relationship between New Zealand and the Pacific was strong.
“We’ll work together as much as possible. I’ll share as much information with him as I can. Certainly, we’re not making this a party, political thing. This is about New Zealand in the Pacific,” she said.
Sepuloni and Brownlee have attended PIF leaders’ meetings before, in the absence of a prime minister.
Brownlee represented New Zealand in 2017 during the election period, while Sepuloni attended a special retreat earlier this year while Chris Hipkins remained in New Zealand to focus on the response to Cyclone Gabrielle.
New Zealand is not the only country with a prime ministerial no-show at this year’s forum.
The leaders of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are all sending delegations in their stead.
Victoria University of Wellington politics and international relations senior lecturer Dr Iati Iati said Pacific leaders would be reasonable and understand New Zealand’s predicament.
“I think both Brownlee and Sepuloni will be good representatives. One represents the outgoing government, the other the incoming government.”
He said it would have been good to get some face-time with other leaders, but it was not the most important thing.
“The real essence of our relationship with the Pacific is determined by the substance of our foreign policy settings, and that happens in between the forum meetings. These are good for face-to-face relationship building, but the substance of the relationship is going to depend on New Zealand’s foreign policies towards the Pacific.”
The parties working to form a government would have their eyes on another major foreign event just around the corner.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit gets under way in San Francisco this weekend.
Luxon has said he would love to go to APEC, but again, the priority was forming a government.
RNZ asked Gerry Brownlee whether he would be keeping his suitcase packed.
“I wouldn’t speculate about that, it’s very early in the week yet. You never know where that might end up,” he said.