‘EXIT’: A Keynote Address by Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu at the 2022 Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange
This is an edited transcript of the keynote address to the 2022 Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange by Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, Director of ICDP and Partner at Latu Lawyers.
Thank you for the privilege of being with all of you this evening.
Can I first pay homage to the traditional owners of the land upon which we tread, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Talofa – to those who watch over this place and have watched over this place for many years.
To the current leaders of the NSW Government, I greet you. To the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and the President of the Legislative Council, to the Premier and Government of New South Wales: we are deeply honoured to be in this place and on the ground that has been occupied by the leaders and builders of this great nation.
To the honourable Peter Kenilorea MP, Talofa, it’s good to see you. To the Chair Dr Ian Watt and my colleagues and directors of ICDP, Pacific alumni and hub coordinators, Cameron Darragh from DFAT, friends, colleagues, and guests.
I am really honoured to speak this evening both as a director of ICDP and as a lawyer who has been doing some unusual things for the last year or so.
ICDP was the organisation that created and ran the Pacific Connect concept and program, which has created a roomful of people like you who have either been through the program or are interested in the people that have been part of the program. And it has made a difference – in every Pacific country that I think we have been in, and it’s sure made a difference in Samoa.
I have called my speech this evening ‘EXIT’ which is drawn from three significant challenges all of us in the Pacific are facing, both in the long and short term; challenges that ultimately will impact the very existence of the islands that we currently live on, their peoples and their culture.
‘EXIT’ stands for ‘extinction’, ‘isolation’ and ‘tyranny’.
When I consider extinction, I am thinking about the environmental challenges we are faced with and the effect all island and coastal states face globally. It is of particular significance to the Pacific Ocean, which houses and is the home of some of the smallest island nations in the world.
The Pacific was named by Magellan as a ‘peaceful sea’. We are, demonstrably and in our lifetimes, watching the land that we cherish diminishing, by the month, by the year. The loss of land and home brings innumerable challenges. Sea level rise, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, coastal erosion, and the changes in ocean chemistry affect fish and seafood which we have fed ourselves with for generations, and which bring livelihoods and have been a very integral part of our way of life.
I imagine that the catastrophic weather events that we have all seen on TV or experienced – for example, here in Sydney, in the last month or so – will have perhaps changed the mindset of climate sceptics and caused them to re-calibrate their disbelief.
These events will become the norm and are not one-in-a-hundred-year events. Extinction is perhaps more likely in the Pacific Island states sooner rather than later. It has a factual and practical risk to the lives of your Pasifika family. Living in the waters of the Pacific Ocean requires urgent attention from us all.
Then there is isolation. That is practically the day-to-day risks that we face based on the economies of scale, with small island developing states so limited in their capacity to be self-sufficient. Their greatest and most valuable resource is their people who get onto the planes that fly away and arrive in this country and New Zealand and America and American Samoa and Hawaii and work and then send their remittances back to their families, their villages, their churches and their communities.
All that is based upon their love, their commitment and loyalty to their communities and their people. It is the diaspora living away from home who have supported Samoa through the pandemic, and continue to support it. In June, our remittances went up by 40%. That is a remarkable increase because we run at approximately 30 to 40 million tālā a month that comes in from Samoans supporting Samoans.
They help fund families to meet the daily challenges of life, particularly out in villages and rural areas. It has brought a degree of prosperity to our communities, particularly if you drive around the two islands and you see cars parked in very remote places, in front of newly renovated or new houses or small shops, or taxis, or very big churches. That is where you see the impact of remittance on the Samoan economy, but also on the Samoan lifestyle.
You can be isolated in a crowded room, and I think Pacific representatives who go to international conferences know that to be true. You can be in a UN meeting, or negotiating the tuna treaty meeting, and be in the room but off the menu.
The point about isolation is that when people speak about the interests of the Pacific, the people that need to speak about them are the people from the Pacific, but the people who wish to support and assist the Pacific need to listen to what they have to say, and not impose a ‘one size fits all’.
We have been the recipients of ‘one size fits all’ projects for many, many years. The problem with ‘one size fits all’ is it does not fit extra-large Samoans. Never will.
What does that mean? That means that you need to find the science that fits and the remedy that achieves the outcomes that you are both wanting to achieve.
So, the isolation comes when the actual interests and potential welfare of smaller, weaker states are ignored and replaced by the agenda of the rich and powerful.
Since the election of Samoa’s first woman Prime Minister, the Honourable Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, who was elected on 9 April 2021 but was unable to take office until 23 July 2021, it is fair to say that the geopolitical dynamics in the region have changed significantly. There are new faces around the table, and the relationship we can see between the Honourable Fiamē, the Honourable Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, and the Honourable Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, as a powerful triumvirate of women who have very similar values, very similar goals, and a great sense of humour.
We have improved our relationship with the Pacific Islands Forum. We have improved our bilateral relationships with New Zealand and Australia, where they greet each other with a hug, not a handshake.
We had also improved our relationship enormously with the United States. There are these building and strengthening lines of communication.
We have also improved our relationship with the European Union, the international financial bodies like the World Bank, IFC, the Asian Development Bank and the IMF.
How? Well, part of it is personality and respect.
There has been a change in leadership in Samoa, a change in approach, and in the quality of the international engagements. In a matter of a few short months, relationships have been transformed. There has been a level of communion with our international partners that we have never previously enjoyed. This time, it was led by a veteran politician who was sophisticated, dignified, approachable, who understands acutely what our countries and the region need and is willing to work collaboratively and cooperatively with other Pacific leaders to achieve that outcome.
We have heavily relied upon our development partners and asked them to fulfil our expectations to assist in moving us from dependency to self-sufficiency. But sometimes both the expectations and the implementation need to be regularly reviewed, and if necessary, tweaked, to fulfill our needs. In doing that, we need to have mature, honest and respectful relationships.
We have been missing that a bit in Samoa, but we are glad that we now have someone who honours and respects the value of a relationship.
Moving to tyranny. You will have read and seen on media that many Pacific states have had many constitutional and governance problems over the years. From a Samoan perspective, as a country and as a people, we have been faced with the whole gamut of constitutional issues in the last 12 months, and we have made it out the other end without a drop of blood, without any damage, except to certain political reputations.
Samoa has emerged from its recent constitutional crisis, and it is because of the rule of law, including the constitutional conventions, and democratic principles, including parliamentary conventions – the building blocks of democratic government – that Samoa still exists.
It was about the rule of law. It was about having an independent, highly competent and strong judicial arm. It was about the strength of our cultural heritage, was about chiefs leading their families, their villages and their districts to ensure that peace and calm were maintained.
It was also about our faith. It was about asking the people of Samoa, who declare themselves as Christian, to maintain and behave with the fruits of the Spirit. Patience, love, forgiveness, all those amazing Galatian qualities that we sometimes take for granted.
We do not take democracy for granted. We cannot, and I think the last 12 months in Samoa are illustrative of the fact that when you have democracy, you must protect it, you must honour it, and you must go back to it as first principles because the alternative is anarchy. The alternative is social unrest.
When you have your conversation here, think about the actual manifestation of those things that occurred not so far away from you.
We have, in the Pacific, a history of strong men. We have, in many of our cultures, the makings of the chiefly status and personality, which sometimes can lead to the spillover into democracy and governance. It is fragile, but having adopted the Westminster system, its principles are enduring, they are necessary, and the conventions are important. They are the guaranteed fail-safe procedure in times of lawlessness, conflict and tyranny.
We are always very close to slipping into tyranny because of the strong men in the region. You go from leading as a chief and slipping into leading as a tyrant with very little in between. It is something that we all share in terms of the need to be vigilant.
I really like the Greek tragedy definition of hubris, which is ‘excessive pride, towards or in defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. Nemesis is defined as ‘an inescapable agent of someone’s downfall’, also defined as retributive justice.
We needed the democratic conventions to restore the will of the Samoan people when it had been ignored and rejected. To do so, we needed to have the building block of a strong civil society, and that is what we had, although there were lots of challenges for individuals and groups.
We need to build and strengthen the understanding of observance and protection of democratic principles in the region. That is a collaborative and cooperative effort.
I am grateful to the Government of Australia through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I acknowledge that ICDP was able to contribute to the speed of DFAT’s statutory responsibilities and the Pacific Regional agenda of government administrations past and present.
So, unless we address the cause of our potential extinction, unless we become less isolated and more connected, unless we are mindful and sensitive to the slide to tyranny and protective of our institutions, then our exit is, in fact, assured.
Shared values, a shared legal and democratic system, and shared respect for each other’s views are the foundation stones for our relationship with Australia, but also our relationship with each other.
Both shared values are reflected in the Pacific alumni who are present in this room, and I specifically acknowledge them and the role of the hub coordinators from the Pacific and from here in Australia, as they keep the network of Pacific Connect alumni connected.
Long may that last.