Te Poutoko Ora a Kiwa –
Centre for Pacific and Global Health at University of Auckland
Public Seminar: Pacific Transnational Leadership
25 June 2023, Auckland, New Zealand
H.E Henry Puna, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum
Sir Colin Tukuitonga, Associate Dean of the Pacific Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences Administration and Director of the the Auckland Research Centre Te Poutoko Ora a Kiwa.
Distinguished panelists and guests
The academic faculty and students of Auckland University
Ladies and gentlemen
Kia Orana and warm Pacific Greetings to you all here this afternoon, and those of you tuning in from across the region.
At the outset, allow me to recognize the Auckland Research Centre Te Poutoko Ora a Kiwa, for convening such a timely conversation for our region, particularly at this time.
Meitaki ma’ata Sir Colin, for honouring me with this invitation, to share a few reflections on my own leadership journey.
Indeed, it is in opportunities such as this, that we take pause to see how far we have come, and to look forward to what lies ahead.
While mine may be a leadership journey that pales in comparison to those who have gone before me, I nevertheless hope that it has made a small but meaningful contribution to:
➢ my nation,
➢ m region; and
➢ m Pacific people.
To understand who I am today, is to understand where I come from.
I am the 7th of 12 siblings. Born on the island of Aitutaki, mine was a childhood of island simplicity, of subsistence living and of rich cultural tutelage.
Growing up, my formative years were shaped through the eyes, values and experiences of my parents.
My father taught me discipline and the simple value of sharing what we have, no mater how little. My mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of compassion and care.
I was raised by my grandmother from an early age and unbeknownst to me, the period of my life spent with her was to also be my first lessons in leadership, and responsibility.
To have been empowered to care for and look after my grandmother in her twilight years, was one of my greatest blessings, as I was witness to the elderly wisdom of my family’s metua on a daily basis, from a young age.
Together with the teachings of my parents, my early life was shaped around:
the value of hard work,
the importance of respect; and
the centrality of our culture and our relationships in our communities, to our “Pacific way” of life.
These values have evolved with time and experience but remain at the core of who I am – as an individual and as a leader.
[National Leadership – A journey of greater self-determination and self-reliance]
“Leadership” for me manifests in many forms, and at all levels of our societies and communities.
Whether we consider leadership through the perspective of culture, politics or professional careers, I have found that it is always centered on, and around, the privilege of serving others.
If I were to reflect and identify an individual who was instrumental in my own political career, Sir Geoffrey Henry would instantly spring to my mind.
He was renowned for recognising youthful potential and was, more often than not, the encouraging force behind young and eager youth, who demonstrated the qualities and abilities to advance quickly.
Indeed, Sir Geoffrey’s foresight nurtured leaders of the future, and it continues to be a quality that we should emulate and uphold, for our younger generations.
To have had the opportunity to serve my country as Prime Minister, has been one of the highest honours of my life.
When I took on the role of Prime Minister on the 30th of November 2010, I took an oath to serve my country and her people; to look beyond our individual differences, and to recognise that we are one people with one vision, and a common destiny.
We built on the work of the Leaders who came before us.
Together, we propelled a stronger foundation for self-determination – a framework of governance, which recognised that our future is mapped by our own talents and foresight, and that the measures of success, as well as failure, are our own.
This sentiment was critical to the vision that we had for our country at that time – which was to move towards greater self-reliance.
In saying so, I recognised earlier on in my career, that the future of my country lay not on the land we stood, but in the ocean that we called home.
[Regional Leadership – Empowerment through a collective identity]
With this vision in mind, we transformed the narrative of the Cook Islands during my tenure as Prime Minister, from one of a Small Island Developing State, to that of a Large Ocean State.
This very idea and concept is captured in our Blue Pacific identity, and the notion of the Blue Pacific Continent – the very ideals that form the basis of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.
Similar to the notion of Large Ocean States, the Blue Pacific identity demonstrated a regional policy shift in our own ideology: from a collection of vulnerable island states, to a cohesive and unified collective that together, occupy an increasingly important strategic space in the world.
The pre-requisite for this to be a true success, is our solidarity and unity as a Pacific Islands Forum. Without a united Forum, our strategic leverage is lost.
Our current strategic context, and the complexity of the challenges that we are faced with, cannot be optimally addressed if we are not genuinely united, and working towards a common vision.
Indeed, our general approach to engagement has revolved around the principle: “Friends to all and enemy to none” approach.
However, if you look around us and the evolving global order today, I am sure you will agree, that we live and exist in an increasingly polarized world.
A world which continues to be dominated by the geopolitical tussle, between two global super-powers.
We witness the introduction of foreign policy ideologies, that seek to embed contrasting world views, into our regional norms and standards.
We see the strategic neglect of 10 years ago, being replaced by the proliferation of regional strategies and consortiums, that serve to shape and influence engagement with, and in our region – tantamount to, if I put it quite frankly, strategic manipulation.
We see these points of external influence increasingly creep into all facets of our operations, both at the national and the regional level – reaffirming that common adage “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Our Blue Pacific continent is an increasingly contested space. Regional and national stability is critical to maintaining and protecting peace and security, prosperity, and the wellbeing of all Pacific peoples, and of peace.
If I am honest, we must realise that the strategic interest and attention we enjoy today, will not last forever, and we must capitalise on it in a manner that will ensure sustainable gains for our region and our people, for decades to come.
Our partnerships must be genuine and durable, and premised on understanding, friendship, mutual benefit, and a collective ambition to achieve sustainable results.
Underlying this partnership approach, must be the recognition and respect for our Pacific leadership, and the responsibility they carry for every decision made, in order to garner support for the sustainable development of their nations.
[Conclusion – Reflections]
With those reflections in mind, allow me to turn to my own personal reflections on my tenure as a “regionalist”, and the time I have left.
Indeed, as we move forward from the challenges within the Forum Family of 2021 – 2022, I am determined that the sacrifice that my Government and I have made, to ensure the solidarity of the Forum, will not be in vain.
I hope that in the remainder of my short term as Secretary General, I will be able to consolidate the political conversations I have had in the last 3 years, to articulate my interpretation of the risks and opportunities, that lie ahead for regionalism.
In doing so, I hope that my successor will be better prepared to navigate and steer the region, towards a stronger collective future.
Having now served in this role, I have come to appreciate the importance of the role of Secretary General, in upholding regionalism, not only as its custodian, but as the link and conduit between the Political Leaders that together form the Pacific Islands Forum, and in leading the collective’s management of the often diverse views, of our partners.
As I have learnt the hard way in the last two years, this role and position is not for the faint-hearted.
It has pushed me to my limits both physically and mentally; it has required me to dig deep into my political experience, to strategically assess emerging issues; it has tested my diplomatic skills to the wire, and it has forced me to be increasingly decisive and assertive. And through it all, I am proud that the values and teachings of my parents and “our” elders has always been my core guiding light.
Indeed, I imagine that this is the case for all regionalists today, who manage the expectations of their memberships, and yet, continue to work to progress our collective aspirations.
To lead a country is an honour; to lead a region of multiple independent and self-governing countries and territories, is a masterful art.
In closing, allow me to reflect with some words of tribute which many of the students who have come through these doors, are familiar with:
“Ko te manu e kai ana te Miro, nōna te ngahere; Ko te manu e kai ana i te mātauranga, nōna te Ao.”
“The bird who feeds on miro (berries) has the forest. The bird who feeds on knowledge has the world.”
Through a leadership lens, and with the Pacific Islands Forum in mind, we know the importance of collective strength to the future of our Blue Pacific continent. When that collective strength seeks to better know and serve the needs of all, who live in our sea of islands, our vast moana – we can truly lead the world.
Meitaki ma’ata, I thank you.– ENDS
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