Pacific resets: Gerald McGhie puts New Zealand's current policy in its historical context and suggests ways of improving co-ordination with the islands' countries.

AuthorMcGhie, Gerald

In 1853 the governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, proposed to the Colonial Office a Federation of Pacific peoples under the guidance of New Zealand. Bishop Selwyn chipped in with a suggestion that saw New Zealand as the centre of a spiritual empire covering roughly the same area.

By the 1870s Grey's expansionist ideas had become an established part of New Zealand's political thought. (1) Increasing self-confidence, economic prosperity and what was seen as 'an alarming degree of foreign involvement' (2) in the Pacific led to New Zealand tirelessly pushing the case for the British government to acquire--or acquire for New Zealand--a controlling interest in the Pacific Islands. As Frank Corner said, 'in this flamboyant period, schemes of annexation were coupled with proposals for trading ventures and commercial exploitation'. (3) Premier Sir Julius Vogel, fearing intervention from other foreign powers, urged Britain to annex Fiji, Samoa, New Guinea, Tonga, Cook Islands, Rapa and the Kermadecs.

When the colonial power proved reluctant, Vogel tried to force their hand by promoting a Polynesian Trading Company sponsored by the New Zealand government. The terms of the scheme moved a Colonial Office official to comment that Vogel was 'the most audacious adventurer ever to have held power in a colony'. Perhaps the official had forgotten Sir Charles Napier. (4)

Prime Minister Seddon was the next major figure to advocate a strong Pacific role for New Zealand. He wanted Samoa, but his hopes were dashed in 1899, a date which Seddon saw as Britain's 'betrayal', when the British government renounced its rights in Samoa in favour of Germany and America. In 1900 the British government finally refused New Zealand's request that responsibility for Fiji should be entrusted to New Zealand. Thus New Zealand's scheme for a Pacific Federation became impracticable.

The period up to 1900 could well be seen as New Zealand's first policy 'Set' in the Pacific. It could be characterised as a shareholder/proprietorial approach to the area. Little change occurred from 1900 until after the outbreak of war in 1914, when Britain asked New Zealand to seize German Samoa as 'a great and urgent Imperial service'. New Zealand's response was swift with a force landing in Apia on 29 August 1914. The period from 1914 could be characterised as 'Reset One', to be followed by 'Reset Two' when Samoa became independent in 1962.

There is little point in repeating the details of the two main incidents that pointed to New Zealand's unsuitability for colonial rule. But, briefly, the outbreak of influenza in Samoa following the First World War was directly attributed to administrative failure. In the event 24 per cent of the population died--one of the highest rates worldwide. The second incident was the 1929 shooting by New Zealand police of Mau supporters on a peaceful march through Apia.

The Great Depression followed by the Second World War meant delays in realising Samoan demands for independence. But a worldwide trend towards decolonisation in 1945 and increased pressure from the newly formed United Nations led New Zealand to prepare for Samoan independence, which was achieved on 1 January 1962.

Samoa's independence was followed by other leading Pacific Islands countries taking steps to secure their own future status: for example, Tonga (4 June 1970) and Fiji (10 October 1970). Papua New Guinea (16 September 1975) and Solomon Islands (7 July 1978) became independent a little later, while the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau remained in close association with New Zealand. Following a New Zealand initiative in 1971, the South Pacific Forum (now Pacific Islands Forum) was founded. For the following almost 50 years it has functioned as a useful...

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