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New Zealand's election season kicked off proper in Wellington last night as debate fired up over a Pacific travel bubble.
Parties gathered to discuss geopolitical matters in an event titled 'Trade, Aid and New Zealand's place in the world' hosted by the Council for International Development and the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.
Managing Chinese influence in the Pacific and how to safely arrange travel to the region prompted some opposing views.
The former Director General of the Pacific Community, now Auckland University academic Colin Tukuitonga beamed in for a question regarding the absence of a Pacific travel bubble.
“The risk of introducing Covid into the islands from New Zealand is remote and the risk of introducing Covid into New Zealand from the islands is remote,” Dr Tukuitonga mooted.
“And there are sound economic and family reasons as to why we should have a New Zealand realm country bubble at this time.”
Labour's David Parker defended the government's caution saying it has to be safe citing potential containment issues in airport transit.
“It's very easy to say it's easy but it's not that easy. You've got to be very careful about every stage of it. And if it were that easy, why is it that other countries that are Covid-free in the Pacific don't want those linkages?” he queried.
“So, those issues are under consideration and when it's safe to do so it will work.”
National's Simon Bridges said New Zealand should push to further open Pacific borders once the realm countries were sorted.
And then tried to cheekily suggest he knew of a Covid bubble announcement.
“By the way, let me try and spike the announcement next week. I understand we're announcing the Cooks, David, on Monday,” which elicited the night's first peels of laughter.
“You heard it here first... Jacinda's probably moving it to Tuesday just because of that,” he quipped to the very responsive audience.
ACT's David Seymour, though positive about aid, was critical of the impact of New Zealand's programme in the region and cited a New Zealand Mission to Niue.
“I happened to go and talk to some people in their government, and they watch Dancing with the Stars it turns out," he jested to the already primed audience, but continued on a more sober footing.
“And they are besotted with China. They think they're going to get all their roads fixed and it's going to be hunky-dory.”
However, in the first contretemps of the night, New Zealand First's Fletcher Tabuteau rejected the assertion that cheque-book diplomacy was what mattered in the Pacific.
“We have a great relationship and it isn't because we hand over money. If you look at the Pacific reset, it's about friendship and mutual understanding.”
National's Simon Bridges indicated National would look to increase New Zealand's presence in Pacific islands.
“Frankly, as we see the Pacific become more of a contested space, as it has its problems and you all know what I'm talking about, it is only natural that we seek to do more in our neighbourhood where we make the most difference.”
Green Party leader James Shaw moved the debate to climate change mitigation, saying it affects every aspect of Pacific governments' planning.
He cited the Cook Islands which he said uses 24 percent of its annual budget on climate adaptation and mitigation, a figure which continues to grow.
“Imagine New Zealand having to spend a quarter of our hundred-billion-dollar budget annually on dealing with the effects of climate change. Well we don't today but it could happen in the future.”
On the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) programme, where Pacific seasonal workers assist New Zealand horticulture and viticulture industries, all agreed it was essential and mutually beneficial. An opening of travel with Pacific neighbours would allow this continue unhindered and members largely agreed that raising the cap on seasonal worker numbers should be investigated.
However, Labour's David Parker highlighted a need to upskill Pacific workforces beyond current roles which may become obsolete.
There was no clear winner of the debate which was a largely friendly affair - though it was clear the Pacific was not at a loss for support.
SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS
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