ANALYSIS: The ‘ava bowl was full, the red carpet was laid and New Zealand’s flags were raised across Apia for the arrival of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and representatives from across Parliament.
Dignitaries are used to the pomp and ceremony that accompanies visits by prime ministers and heads of state - but this is no ordinary trip. It comes at extraordinary times, when the Pacific faces some of its greatest challenges.
There was added excitement in Samoa, as Monday marked the opening of its border after almost two and a half years.
The RNZAF flight from Whenuapai to Apia, carrying the PM, iwi leaders, Samoan community leaders and politicians from across the House, was the first plane to land carrying foreigners.
The whole country knew the New Zealanders were back.
Banners celebrating “uō maemae”, meaning lifelong friendship, had been placed around Apia city in reference to New Zealand. The drive from Faleolo Airport to the city was dotted with New Zealand flags.
Near the busy bus stop beside the sea wall, commuters waved out from those iconic pimped out Toyota monster buses as foreigners returned to their home.
It felt exciting, if not for the trepidation evident in the fact life in Samoa has undergone drastic changes for many since Covid-19.
But the official message was that Monday was a day of celebration. In the gardens of author Robert Louis Stevenson’s old home, a luxurious 19th century mansion, an evening of fire dancing, waiata, traditional Samoan ceremonies, dancing, and a few covers to modern pop hits welcomed the plane load of Kiwi politicians and visitors.
At a function that night, Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa spoke about the tyranny of isolation.
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The damage Covid-19 has inflicted to the Pacific is major. Samoa faced a major Covid-19 outbreak a few months ago, which extended its lockdown and continues to bear consequences.
Schools are struggling to teach children, with primary schools reporting that a third of their students have stopped attending.
The country relied on tourism in pre-pandemic days, and unemployment skyrocketed when tourists stopped coming. It triggered an immediate recession, which saw GDP decline 8.1% last year.
Mata’afa invited leaders from New Zealand to travel to Apia for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, when she visited Wellington in June. There, she met Ardern and National leader Christopher Luxon – who also took up her invitation this week.
The Treaty of Friendship was signed on August 1, 1962, and its first signatory was none other than Fiamē Mataʻafa Faumuina Mulinuʻu II, Samoa’s first prime minister and the current prime minister’s father.
“Friendship” has been the focus of the trip.
The relationship between Samoa and New Zealand has not always been friendly.
Ardern noted the more fulsome history in her speech, discussing the story of new Labour MP Anae Neru Leavasa’s great-grandfather, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. He was a chief and leader of the Mau movement in the 1920s, when New Zealand police gunned him down and killed him on the streets of Apia during Black Saturday. He was one of 11 people to be killed.
The Treaty of Friendship came about after Samoa gained its independence, at the start of 1962, after 48 years of New Zealand’s “administration”.
Colonisation of the Pacific inflicted significant damage to this region.
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, speaking to journalists in Apia on Monday evening, described the relationship between Aotearoa and Samoa as that of whānau rather than friends.
Family can be overbearing, as New Zealand has certainly been – and some argue still is – guilty of.
She said the arrival of all sides of Parliament showed a move towards approaching the Pacific as “teina”, willing to learn from the Pacific.
“It's humbling to remind us that while we're over in New Zealand, we have a huge obligation here. It's not something to take lightly.”
The future of this relationship will be the focus of discussions between ministers and MPs from both countries on Tuesday.
New Zealand is likely to announce funding for climate change initiatives, which Ardern has discussed often in recent months.
But there are other challenges which connect New Zealand, Samoa and other Pacific nations.
ACT’s David Seymour noted the RSE scheme as one. While it acts as a source of income for Pacific-based workers, and fills worker shortages in New Zealand, he said it was clear the scheme lacked dignity by placing workers “in basically the same conditions that indentured servants used to be in”. He called for the scheme to be fixed and then expanded.
Whilst welcoming workers and immigration from the Pacific, how can New Zealand support the prosperity and independence of the Pacific?
On August 1, Samoa was one of a handful of Pacific islands to open its border again, alongside Tonga and the Federated State of Micronesia and Kiribati.
Covid-19 and climate change are fuelling economic woes across the Pacific, posing major issues for our region.
These are issues likely to need a unified response, and New Zealand’s relationships with all Pacific islands are important.
History shows that New Zealand cannot view the Pacific simply as a commodity But it is the largest island nation in this whānau, and could therefore be vital in ensuring regional stability and also fostering growth after a few very hard years.