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Pacific Mission 2024: A diary - Day 1 in Tonga brings smiles from both sides

Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Health and Pacific Peoples Minister Dr Shane Reti are travelling around Tonga, the Cook Islands and Samoa this week. Te Rito journalism cadet Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai joins them.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Off the back of Waitangi, it’s straight back to business - but this time in the Pacific and specifically in the island kingdom of Tonga.

The first day of the Pacific Mission is a busy one for ministers Winston Peters and Dr Shane Reti; with the media pack almost falling over each other to get the perfect photo at every key event.

The Tongan leg begins with a bilateral conference between Peters and Reti, who meet with Tonga’s Deputy PM, Samiu Vaipulu, to discuss how Aotearoa can earn brownie points by sponsoring money for Tonga.

After what Vaipulu describes as a “fruitful” meeting, exactly just how fruitful is not known; as Peters does not give a straight answer when asked how much money was given to Tonga.

Instead, he mentions a saying that no one has really heard of.

It’s now time for the opening of a new pharmaceutical medical centre, built with the help of $2.4 million from Aotearoa, as part of the Covid-19 response.

While the two Kiwi ministers make their way to the new building, the media delegation is bracing for their lives as the van driver we’ve affectionately started calling Aunty does a Fast and Furious - island style - holding the horn down as we speed past car after car, with no regrets, in a bid to get behind the Peters and Reti motorcade.

Fast and furious - island style

We make it, alive and safe, and formalities begin with the usual prayer (at any Pasifika event, at least). There is something regal in the air, as the Crown Prince is attending.

Reti delivers his speech after a long day of meetings, followed by our deputy PM. Both speeches are short and sweet - much to everyone’s thanks, given the scorching heat.

A top tip media have started to learn in this short time is that if you need Peters to break into a laugh or smile, instead of saying “cheese,” ask him to say “Waitangi” instead.

Something Peters keeps pointing out in his speeches and responses is that Māori and all of New Zealand are from the Pacific Ocean too.

When a group of young Tongan health workers perform a traditional dance in honour of the two ministers and the Crown Prince, a few Tongan locals in the crowd come up and place or throw a banknote on them, as a sign of acknowledgement and love.

Reti is seen getting up then, reaching into his jacket pocket for a note - with a flash of green shown as he places it onto the first dancer. Peters gets up straight afterwards, also putting a banknote on the same dancer.

Next stop: Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Later, it’s another mad dash to the airport, as the delegation gets set to head to its second destination, the Cook Islands, where there will be more meetings and brownie points to be had.

Following take-off, Peters can be seen in the aisle making small talk with members of the media, while laughing as the cabin crew makes their way down the aisle to begin dinner service.

A few moments later, he says with a cheeky grin: “Well if I stand here, I will not get a drink.”

Touching down in Rarotonga after a long day, everyone is looking forward to another day of work on yet another beautiful tropical island.

Hero Image: Deputy PM Winston Peters and Tonga's Deputy PM Samiu Vaipulu. Photo / Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai

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