Jacinda Ardern has begun a Pacific reset, but what the region really needs is an upgrade

Jacinda Ardern  arrives in Niue
Jacinda Ardern arrives in Niue

ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wraps up her whirlwind trip across the South Pacific today. While she has delivered on the promise of a "reset" in relations, there are problems here that will take more than a new attitude and some more aid money to fix. Henry Cooke travelled with her.

It was close to the last stop of a gruelling trip, but Ardern's smile was as wide as ever, even as she acknowledged that the school block she was opening in Rarotonga was funded by the National Government, not hers.

As she finished her speech, host Emile Kairoua proclaimed "it's our job to make sure she is the longest ever serving Prime Minister of New Zealand".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern  welcomed at House of Ariki, Cook Islands.
Michael Craig/POOL
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed at House of Ariki, Cook Islands.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who met her on this trip who disagreed. Ardern's week-long mission across Samoa, Niue, Tonga, and the Cook Islands easily succeeded on the terms her Government had set itself: this was a reset, just as Winston Peters had promised.

Jacinda Ardern saves the best for last in Rarotonga

Pension portability for Niue and Cook Islands
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives in a turbulent Tonga

The locals treated her like a pop star, and the leaders seemed to all come out of their bilateral meetings with something approaching respect.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is welcomed at House of Ariki, Cook Islands.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is welcomed at House of Ariki, Cook Islands.

The prime minister announced just over $36 million in aid - about 3.6 per cent of the total aid budget allocated for the Pacific for 2015-2018.

These countries are used to receiving aid money from New Zealand, and nobody expects any of this to fix all of the problems. It is part of a larger strategy to move away from that donor-recipient relationship that she needed to get right. Conversations with people who were at the bilateral meetings Ardern held at every stop indicate that this attempt to really listen to the Pacific, not just dictate what was on offer, was mostly achieved.

That didn't mean everyone always got what they wanted or that the Prime Minister is now best friends with the old men who lead all of these nations, but it does mean the leaders will now know - and likely respect - our new Prime Minister, and realise that this relationship has changed to a slightly less paternal one.

The bonds with the premiers of the tiny "realm" countries of Niue and the Cook Islands are naturally the strongest - especially given the huge pension portability announcement on Thursday, which will allow Niueans and Cook Islanders to return home from New Zealand earlier in their lives without putting their Kiwi pension at risk.

This was a real and important change, not just more aid, and these nations have been asking for it for decades.

Given its relative cheapness - maybe $4m a year, estimates say - it's extremely hard to figure out why no one had done this before, other than the simple pernickety rule-following attitude of the political class. These are the kind of shifts you can really build a new bond upon, and explains well why Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna was basically bad-mouthing the National Party during his press conference with Ardern.

In the larger nations of Samoa and Tonga, who are being loaned and granted money from China like there is no tomorrow, the politicians were a bit cooler. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, who has met five Kiwi Prime Ministers during his time in office, could barely look at Ardern during their cramped press conference.

When a question about the Chinese loans came up he was immediately defensive, saying "it's all transparent, it's all out in the open," and claiming that he couldn't remember how much money his Government owed China.

To be fair to him, Tongan Prime Minister ʻAkilisi Pōhiva didn't even hold a press conference, but probably had the time for it: he turned up around 45 minutes to the meeting with Ardern.

These are the places causing that "strategic anxiety" Peters talked about in his reset speech, which dogged the entire trip. Both Peter and Ardern were loath to mention the word "China" at their daily stand-ups - even as they arrived in Samoa's airport funded with a Chinese loan and met with the Tongan prime minister in a Government building funded by a Chinese grant.

It is obvious that the Government is wary of China's growing influence in the region and the indebtedness of some of the Governments (as is the International Monetary Fund) but it is also not really possible for us to largely fob off our second largest trading partner. Peters handled this tension well: he set the media pack off on the issue with the speech last week, but then refused to properly talk about it.

It is on everyone's minds while he looks totally innocent.One of the more interesting decisions Ardern made was to break with tradition and walk onto Atapare Marae in Rarotonga, instead of being carried in on a chair.

She told media that this was simply due to her being "heavy" right now but it's fair to say she might have also been a bit worried about how it would look to have a white woman carried on the shoulders of Pacific people. This is a legitimate concern.

There are a lot of photos of Ardern, adorned in flowers surrounded by Pacific people, all attached to stories about how she was generously helping them with western aid.

The Prime Minister is a sophisticated enough politician to be aware of the white saviour complex: of how this kind of coverage can make it seem like white people are the only people with the wherewithal to fix the problems these islands face, which in fact often stem from the colonialism her ancestors engaged in. But Ardern was careful to talk to as many people as possible as equals. She hasn't been the prime minister for long enough to feel like a special superhuman yet.

The round of acknowledging she made sure to start every speech with was wise. Along with the local leaders she would always mention "Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters," usually with an extra line of praise.

At the pension portability announcement she even made clear that this was a part of coalition negotiations: essentially handing the victory to Peters. Where ever you are in the world, coalition politics requite this kind of tender love and care.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw did not get quite that amount of love. Labour, NZ First, and National all sent two or more MPs, but Shaw was the only Green Party representative, and occasionally seemed a bit out of place. Indeed, while climate change is a huge challenge facing all of these nations, and ostensibly one of the topics of the trip, there was no major announcement in the area, just some more rhetoric from Ardern about "doing our bit" and the 2050 goal of net zero carbon emissions.

2050 is a long time away, and we visited a village in Samoa which was already losing its main path into town to sea level rise. As ever the unfairness is stark: these nations are among the lowest carbon emitters in the world, but they will bear some of the worst of the damage.

If storms like Gita really do become the norm, then we'll be needing a climate change refugee scheme a long time before 2050.

But as Ardern was quick to point out in her final media stand-up of the trip, this was still in many ways a listening and promising tour, not a delivery one, other than with the pension changes. As with many things in this Government, the real record will be in the delivery.So how will that delivery look? A lot more investment instead of aid, as the leaders kept talking about. A managed transition out of developed nation status for the Cook Islands. A proper change in climate change policy.

Peters also motioned towards the biosecurity problems that stop us importing much fruit from these islands, which he said was put in the "too hard basket" and needs to be fixed. The metaphor is apt: plenty of the problems the Pacific faces have been chucked into the too-hard basket. For this reset to work the whole thing is going to have to be emptied out.