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Black and white image of Winston Peters in front of billowing black smoke in New Caledonia
(Image: Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 17, 2024

What’s happening in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and why it matters to NZ

Black and white image of Winston Peters in front of billowing black smoke in New Caledonia
(Image: Getty Images)

Winston Peters has been on tour around the Pacific while two unrelated crises unfolded, explains Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Two separate and very different crises

Deputy prime minister Winston Peters has been on a tour of the Pacific this week – his second in this term of office. He’s been joined by a handful of government ministers and Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson David Parker. The trip was an opportunity, said Peters at the outset, to strengthen New Zealand’s engagement with the region. But Peters’ time abroad has come against the backdrop of two major stories in the Pacific, both of which impact New Zealand and New Zealanders. So today we’re going to zone in on what’s been happening in New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

A state of emergency in New Caledonia

Catherine McGregor summarised the situation in New Caledonia in this week’s edition of The Spinoff’s World Bulletin, which you can access as a Spinoff member. As of this morning, there have been five people killed, and hundreds injured, in riots triggered by controversial voting reforms. RNZ has a helpful explainer here on what sparked the civil unrest in the French territory, which has effectively closed down the nation’s capital Nouméa. Peters and the delegation were due to visit New Caledonia earlier in the week, but The Post reported that the trip was postponed due to the violence. In a statement yesterday afternoon, Peters urged for “all sides to take steps to de-escalate the situation, so that there can be dialogue and calm”. Peters said the safety of New Zealanders in New Caledonia was of “utmost concern”, and asked those on the island to register via SafeTravel. One New Zealander on the ground in Nouméa described the situation to RNZ’s Morning Report yesterday, saying the town was on fire. A business owner in New Caledonia told the Pacific Media Network that many shops and buildings have been “burned and looted”, while local militia have had to secure housing “because the police have been completely overwhelmed”. On RNZ’s Checkpoint last night, New Caledonian expats here in New Zealand said they were scared for their families back home. One woman, who has been in Aotearoa for two years, said she felt grateful to be safe – “but at the same time I feel so bad for my family and friends over there”.

No way home

Meanwhile, Vanuatu has been facing a crisis of an entirely different nature. The country’s airline, Air Vanuatu, went into liquidation at the end of last week, grounding planes and leaving close to 1,500 regional workers here in New Zealand unable to make it home – as well as hitting the tourism market that bolsters Vanuatu’s economy. Peters visited Vanuatu earlier in the week and raised concerns about the impact of the situation, as Tagata Pasifika reported. “Everybody here is concerned about this really significant utility for this economy and its long-term future,” Peters said. That same report details the potential impact for locals in Vanuatu who rely on tourism to make a living. One local weaver, Regina Toa, said it would prove challenging for her family. For regional workers here in New Zealand, the collapse of the airline has meant getting back home at the end of the summer season is impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive. On Wednesday night, Tahu Huntley, the RSE manager at Nelson-based labour company Hortus, explained to RNZ’s Checkpoint just how complicated it would be to get workers back to Vanuatu. “It ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $1,600 one way to get these guys home,” he said. As of last night, RNZ’s reported there are 1,458 RSE workers stranded in New Zealand with visas soon to expire.

Why the foreign minister was in the region 

The New Zealand delegation managed to visit the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu earlier in the week, wrapping its tour in Tuvalu yesterday. While it’s not unusual for a foreign minister to spend much of their time overseas, the coalition government has emphasised the importance of connecting New Zealand with the rest of the world. Prime minister Christopher Luxon told the Herald’s Audrey Young last week, while discussing the controversy over Aukus, that bipartisanship in foreign policy was “important for a small country like New Zealand”. For Peters, he has to balance his role in the coalition government with his position as the country’s most high profile diplomat. And when it comes to something like Aukus, the government’s move towards it may prove unpopular in the Pacific as this piece from PMN in April looks at. As for the current crises, there is no clear end in sight. New Caledonia’s state of emergency is in place for 12 days and France is sending in police and military reinforcements in an attempt to prevent further unrest.

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