More institutes are starting up in the South Pacific. The question is, do they have a guaranteed life expectancy? This is a gloomy global economy where a surplus of institutes all over the world for everything imaginable from climate change, to international relations and trade, to anti-war coalitions, struggle for financial survival. They compete in a cut-throat industry to manufacture public information and influence through a brand of research and policy advice.
Who do they attempt to influence? For a start governments and inter-government bodies at regional level, and at the world parliament – the United Nations. Also public opinion, as having sway over what the masses believe is true is a means to keeping institutes fashionable and funded. Are institutes impermanent brainwaves riding the political favour of a funder, or the popular opinion of voters at a given time in modern history?
We ask this because in March 2016 alone two institutes were launched. From a glance they looked to have no connection to each other, except to say that both used Institute in their organisations’ names. In Tonga there was the Royal Oceanic Institute, which emailed out invitations to its launch the day before. A colleague of ours put it best: “Typical Tongans, one day’s notice for an event that is supposed to be important.”
“ROI [Royal Oceanic Institute] has not yet started accepting funding,” reported Matangi Tonga Online. (Matangi Tonga, 2016). Translation: the Tongan organisation had not obtained sustainable financing. Were its instigators hopeful that the Chairman, Lord Fakafanua, might settle the start-up dosh? Or, were they dependent on donations from various backers to get underway?
Add to that Murray McCully’s New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research, which he stated in a government press release his Ministry of New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade bankrolled at NZD “$7.5 million over five years to establish the Institute and develop an initial programme of research.” (McCully, 2016). The tender went out to New Zealand’s seven universities. The bids came in.
The University of Auckland in collaboration with Auckland University of Technology and the University of Otago were declared the winners. In a developed country, $7.5 million split between three universities to subsidise a programme of five research projects, which in the course of five years centred “on Pacific development, investment and foreign policy issues,” was not a huge amount. (Radio New Zealand, 2016; New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research, 2016).
But here was the true dividing line. McCully established his institute with the mind-set that it might be New Zealand’s version of Australia’s Lowy Institute. The outdated logic was to carve up the South Pacific into colonial spheres of influence. Lowy Institute produced research papers and policy briefs to sustain Australia’s dominance over Melanesian states, and the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research staked out the Polynesian states as New Zealand’s domain.
McCully’s vision was a far cry from the Royal Oceanic Institute, which forged ahead with a think tank independent from the dictates of the state and the regional polity of the Pacific Islands Forum. The Tongans wanted a vehicle that represented an authentic voice of participatory democracy for Tongan nationals, a body which spoke up to government, and spoke on international affairs.
Politically New Zealand and Tonga existed on opposite ends of the earth. McCully was firming up New Zealand’s weight and sway in the Polynesian sub-region. The Tongans were detaching from the New Zealand realm.
Thus, the tactic for safeguarding Tonga’s sovereignty was to manage domestic and foreign business without getting pushed around by what New Zealand wanted, which came directly from McCully via his Nuku’alofa office. Pakeha made up New Zealand’s aid donors, consultants, researchers, and advisors.
If Pacific New Zealanders were included in the mix they were rarely, if ever, Tongan nationals, Tongan language speakers, and Tongan experts. As expected, the rationale was that Tongans had to take matters in hand by generating their own brand of research and publications that put the people’s interests forward.
Given that McCully’s ministry has a New Zealand High Commission in Tonga’s capital across from the Prime Minister’s Office, one might think that this arm of NZAID had adequate networks and information gathering skills to see the Royal Oceanic Institute coming. Talk of an independent think tank focused on “fact-based research” and steering policy “on topics relevant to the community” was old news, a proposal that had gone around Tonga and the Auckland Tongan diaspora since the former Tu’ivakano regime. (Matangi Tonga, 2016).
If McCully’s people did have their ear to the ground and an inkling that an institute in Tonga would emerge, then they ignored the signs. Not a good look when New Zealand Foreign Affairs fails to apprehend the activities going on inside a Polynesian country and development partner where it has an office with New Zealand citizens working there.
What do the dissimilar ambitions of the Royal Oceanic Institute and the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research signal to independent small island developing states constituting the Polynesian sub-region – Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, and Tuvalu? Quite simply, a parting of the ways. Tonga is the country that will split this cluster, which New Zealand assumes it has under its thumb, for a number of reasons.
First, there’s historical legacy. Tongans see they were not formally colonised by the British Empire, despite being party to a Treaty of Friendship with the United Kingdom from 1900 to 1970. This makes Tonga a different kettle of fish to keep under control, as opposed to Samoa, which experienced German rule from 1900 to 1914, and New Zealand as its colonial administrator from 1920 until independence in 1962.
By this, we mean that Tonga has never been mentally dependent on New Zealand as a stand-in power for a Western European Empire. Auckland may have the largest settlement of overseas Tongans, but, this does not automatically make New Zealand Tonga’s preferred trade, investment, aid, and development partner.
Second, there’s shifting geopolitics. The invented boundary between Melanesia and Polynesia collapsed with the advent of Papua New Guinea as an aid donor to Pacific Islands countries. Furthermore, the Pacific Islands Development Forum led by Fiji which excluded Australia and New Zealand as members, relegating them to observers with China and the United States, made headway in renovating regional architecture to advocate the collective priorities of Pacific Islands countries only.
Samoa under Prime Minister Tuilaepa refused to join. Tonga attended the annual conferences, holding back from throwing its lot in with the Fijian forum because Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva was worried that Australia and New Zealand might retaliate by cutting the aid flow to Tonga. But the Tongan public was anticipating a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister to be put to parliament in the mid-year.
Given that Pohiva lost the vote, what then? One possible outcome is the emergence of a noble-led government under Lord Nuku. The antithesis of Pohiva, Nuku had leadership resolve and political will to move regional relations away from the Polynesian Leaders Group, and closer to Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group. An alliance with Fiji, and cordial dealings with Melanesian countries, greater served Tonga’s trade, investment, and strategic interests.
Third, this is the twenty-first century not the twentieth. The New Zealand government was operating in last century mode, and had yet to adapt its national interests in the South Pacific to China being the influential power. The Cold War was over, and the region was no longer an exclusive Western sphere of influence. New Zealand Foreign Affairs with McCully at the helm had not taken into account the changing tides.
The Royal Oceanic Institute as Tonga’s independent think tank went some way to warding off pressure from the New Zealand state to conform to their containment of the Polynesian sub-region. The hard truth? McCully’s manoeuvring of the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research may well do more to drive Tonga closer to the emerging economies of China, India, the Russian Federation, and South-East Asia.
The one thing McCully could count on is that Tonga would resist being lumped together with other Polynesian states as a symbol of New Zealand’s imagined authority over its saltwater backyard. The scenario playing out was all too paternalistic and patronising for the oldest and last remaining Native Kingdom of the South Seas. Who in this day-and-age would want to be insufferably positioned as inferior to a settler colony of the former British Empire?
Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand.
Melino Maka is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, New Zealand, and the publisher of Tonga NZ Net.
Matangi Tonga. (2016). New think tank for Tonga launched. Matangi Tonga Online, Nuku’alofa, March 31.
McCully, M. (2016). NZ Pacific Research Institute Launched. Beehive Govt NZ, Wellington, March 22.
New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research. (2016). New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research: Research Projects. New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research (NZIPR), Auckland, April 7.
Radio New Zealand. (2016). NZ Pacific Research Institute Launched. Radio New Zealand: International, Wellington, March 23.