Special Parliamentary Address by Henry Puna, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
27 June 2023
Kia Orana Mr Speaker,
Kia Orana Prime Minister, your colleague Ministers and your Members
Kia orana to the Leader of Opposition and her Members
To the King’s Representative Sir Tom Marsters and Lady Marsters,
Presidents of the House of Ariki, and Koutu Nui, our Religious Advisory Council and all your respective church members,
To everyone listening in to this session today from across our great country, kia orana.
Kia orana I te aroa maanaana o to tatou Metua Atua I te rangi.
It is so wonderful to be home again on our own shores.
To hear the familiar roar of our Ocean.
To be amongst familiar company and surrounded by friends and family.
To be in the safe and secure embrace of home – of our land and of our people.
Speaker, Honourable Members,
Meitaki ma’ata, for allowing me the distinct honour of addressing this august body this afternoon.
Standing before you in this parliamentary chamber today, brings back many memories of times now past, and a chapter of my life now closed.
Standing before you in this parliamentary chamber today, is a reminder that the privilege that I now carry as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, is not mine alone, but one that was only made possible with the support of our island nation.
But most importantly, standing before you in this parliamentary chamber today, is a strong reminder that the work that we do at the regional level through the Pacific Islands Forum, must be responsive to the decisions taken by Member Governments and Parliaments, like this very house, throughout the region.
What you do here, and what you decide here, matters to the region. It always will.
In saying so, Mr Speaker and Honourable Members,
I seek your indulgence in allowing me to share a few reflections on regionalism and further, to use this opportunity to register formally with this august house, my recognition and appreciation of the Cook Islands as a Member of the Pacific Islands Forum, and moreso, as a strong and consistent leader on current and emerging regional priorities.
[The Pacific Region today]
Mr Speaker and Honourable Members,
We live today in unprecedented times.
We have just emerged from a pandemic that has tested every fabric of our national systems.
We continue to navigate and respond to the increasing intensity of climate change and its impacts on a daily basis.
We continue to witness an increasing intensity of strategic interest and attention in our region, and in our countries.
We see the elevation of security-driven partnerships, development co-operation, dialogues and strategies both in, and with the region.
Taken together, these elements highlight three key issues:
Firstly, that we, as a region, are in the strongest strategic position in our history to progress our collective priorities and more so, to shape and influence the global order.
Secondly, we can only leverage this strategic interest, including durable and sustainable partnerships, if we remain united as a region; and
Thirdly, stability is essential in the face of the multifaceted challenges we face in economic recovery, climate adaptation and the strengthening of our social systems and processes.
We cannot and must not return to “business as usual” as a region and as individual nations.
We must capitalise on the current strategic interest in our region.
We are in a window of opportunity that will not last long and we must continue the innovative momentum gained during the pandemic.
We must strengthen our strategic leverage as a collective, and be clear about our strategic priorities as a region, and as individual countries.
[Cook Islands contribution to Regionalism]
Mr Speaker, Honourable Members,
The Cook Islands is well-positioned to demonstrate and uphold the strong regional leadership that we need to ensure that we, as the Blue Pacific, are able to capitalise on the opportunities before us today.
As Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum and indeed, as host of the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting later this year, the Cook Islands has the distinct responsibility to shape the region’s direction on some of these key and emerging issues.
This is no small fete, and it will require the collective wisdom of the leadership of this house and the support of the people of this great country.
In saying so, I also recognise that regional leadership and innovation is not new to the Cook Islands.
Papa Arapati Henry was amongst the five founding leaders who came together to form the South Pacific Forum in 1971, today known as the Pacific Islands Forum.
He was instrumental in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and he was strategic in his vision on the value of the Ocean to our economic aspirations as a nation.
Leaders who followed in his footsteps, built on his vision which culminated in the Ocean Governance framework that you have today, in the form of Marae Moana – a legislation that was thoroughly consulted and enjoyed bipartisan support in this very house.
This is yet another gem that we can offer the region, as an innovative example on the alignment of sustainable development and conservation, in the interest of and for our people.
Indeed, the Cook Islands transformation in 2012 of its own development narrative from that of a Small Island Developing State to one of a Large Ocean State was captured in the region’s settlement of the Blue Pacific identity.
Similar to the notion of Large Ocean State, 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.
[Cook Islands as Forum Chair]
Mr Speaker, Honourable Members,
Allow me to acknowledge, at this juncture, the leadership of the Honourable Prime Minister and his team.
Under his guidance, the Cook Islands has demonstrated leadership on the Fukushima Issue with the Government of Japan – in alignment to the commitments under the Rarotonga Treaty.
Under his guidance, the Cook Islands is exploring transformative and innovative partnership modalities in support of regional priorities, through the Forum Chair led initiative, Pacific Partners for Prosperity.
Under his guidance, the region will elevate its advocacy for the reform of the global financial architecture and development finance, in the context of debt and resilience.
This advocacy was carried to the G7 Summit in the last month – where he became the first Pacific Island Leader to attend and address the world’s 7 largest developed economies collectively.
On this point allow me to acknowledge in particular the strong political support secured from the Government of the United States for the Pacific Resilience Facility, as a result of his consistent advocacy for this regional resilience initiative with Partners.
I am confident that partner Governments will also follow the lead demonstrated by the U.S. in support of this home-grown initiative, that will respond to the challenges we face in accessing development finance for the region.
The Cook Islands continues to punch far above its weight at the regional and global stage, and I look forward to continuing to support Prime Minister Brown and Pacific Leaders, as we move towards the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum later this year.
[Appointment as Secretary General]
Mr Speaker, Honourable Members,
As you can imagine, for me personally, it has been an honour to represent the Cook Islands in the highest regional office in our Blue Pacific.
I assumed the role of Secretary General in May 2021 amidst much controversy, and in the middle of a pandemic.
The appointment process, and the ensuing political challenges within the Forum Family, is now but a weave in the fabric of our region’s rich history.
Much has been said and much has been written.
But as I had shared with a gathering in Auckland earlier this week: as we move forward from the challenges within the Forum of 2021 – 2022, I am determined that the sacrifice that I and your Government has made, to ensure the solidarity of the Forum, will not be in vain.
Having now served as Secretary General for just over two years, I will admit that I now have a much deeper appreciation for regionalism and collective action – a much deeper appreciation that I did not have, as a political leader of our country.
This role is critical:
More importantly, I find that the role is an important relationship conduit between our Forum Leaders, because regionalism is not about the work of one person, it is not about one government or one regional organisation.
Regionalism is about the strength, commitment and collective efforts of the full Membership, and moreso, the political commitment of Leaders to our principles of collective action and our Pacific Way.
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.
Taken together, these reflections now beg the question, what or how can we ensure that our political leaders have a stronger appreciation and value of the Forum? Perhaps a point to continue to ponder as we move forward.
Indeed, while mine may be a leadership journey that pales in comparison to those who have gone before me, it is a journey which has built on the experiences and teachings of my parents and my elders.
It has been a journey that has been made richer by the support of my family – my brothers and sisters, my wife Akaiti, my children and all those who have stood with me through it all.
It is an honour to have the privilege to have served both my country and my region, through its highest political offices.
I can only hope that my contribution, while small, has been meaningful to our nation, to our people and to the Blue Pacific region that we serve.
I thank you for entrusting me with the confidence to represent our great ocean state, and I look forward to continuing do so until the completion of my tenure.
Meitaki maata, te Atua te aroa no tatou katoatoa.
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