Getting to know NZ’s new top diplomat in Cooks

Saturday March 23, 2019 Written by Published in Politics
New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands Tessa Te Mata. 19032205 New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands Tessa Te Mata. 19032205

Tessa Te Mata was appointed the New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands last year. Te Mata took over the role last month. She is the second female high commissioner in the Cook Islands and  woman of Pacific heritage to head a New Zealand diplomatic post in the Pacific. Te Mata, a qualified lawyer, is also of Cook Islands descent. CI News senior journalist Rashneel Kumar talked to Te Mata about her goals, challenges and anticipations in her new role.

 CI News: Tell me a bit about yourself.

High Commissioner Te Mata: I’m born and raised in Taranaki, New Zealand, but my father Tia Toa is from Mauke. I knew a little bit about my history but not much. It’s really quite humbling to learn that I can trace my lineage back to Uke himself through his eldest daughter. My mother Jane Crichton is from Samoa, so I’m half Samoan, half Cook Islander, born and raised in New Zealand and I was married to the Papua New Guinean so that is as Pacific as they come (laughs).

CI News: Can you please share your work experience so far?

HC Te Mata: I have a 25-year career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in a range of areas including Pacific development and strategy, international trade law, security and multilateralism in the United Nations.  Prior to my appointment as the High Commissioner, I was concurrently New Zealand’s chief negotiator for the PACER Plus trade and development agreement and a unit manager in the Pacific Regional Division, based in Wellington. I have also served as Deputy High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and had assignments at New Zealand’s missions in the Cook Islands, Indonesia, Kiribati and Niue.  From 2010 to 2012, I was the country director for HOPEworldwidePNG, a NGO dedicated to delivering clinical and community based health care and projects in the education and agricultural sectors.  In 2012, I was the founding chief executive for a security company in PNG.

CI News: When was the last time you came to the Cook Islands on holiday and what was your experience like?

HC Te Mata: That was two Easters ago that I came here for a holiday with my sister and that was really wonderful. Like most things, you get to relax here which is wonderful but you also get to catch up with family so it feels like coming home. It was really lovely when I arrived and got together with lot of families and relatives. I will be honest, I know some of my family, not all of them and being here is a chance to learn more about my roots and my family.

CI News: You are the first Cook Islander to head the mission here and also the first woman of Pacific descent to be appointed head of a Pacific Mission. How do you feel about this achievement?

HC Te Mata: I think that speaks to the government’s Pacific Reset and that real commitment to an increasingly mature partnership and relationship with the Cook Islands. I think it also speaks to the authenticity and strength of the common whakapapa that the two countries have.

CI News: Being a female in such influential position, you surely must be an inspiration to other females in the region.

HC Te Mata: I hope that my position does inspire other women in terms of looking for positions of leadership. I served in Niue, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea for a number of years and I’m always impressed with the women that I do see in positions of power. You see just how capable they are. I think that speaks for itself and I hope my time here will also help reinforce that yes, women can absolutely step up and do the job.

CI News: This is your first posting as head of a mission. What are the challenges you anticipate in your role?

HC Te Mata: I think it’s the weight of responsibility to be at the forefront of a relationship as important as the Cook Islands. I have been in the situations before where I would be a specialist in a particular area e.g. I was a trade negotiator. But here in the Cook Islands, I’m responsible for the quality, the closeness and the productivity of the entire relationship. Honestly that’s a little bit scary although I’m really looking forward to it. It’s just the complexity of the relationship that we have got here in the Cook Islands that really excites me.

CI News: You have a three-year term, is there anything in particular you want to achieve during your term?

HC Te Mata: I think one of the things that’s been really exciting over the last few years is the way in which our countries have moved from a discussion focused primarily on development assistance to whole range of other things – economic issues, political issues, collaboration on issues in the Pacific Islands forum. I think that speaks to just how much there can be a partnership between New Zealand and the Cook Islands; and also I think for New Zealand to learn more about just how much the Cook Islands has to offer in that partnership. This is not a one way thing at all, there are lot of strengths I think we can draw on in how we engage on different issues.

CI News: You have come at a time when the Pacific Reset programme is in its initial stage. Do you feel there is too much responsibility on you to see this through?

HC Te Mata: The fundamental thing about the Reset is that it’s a reset of attitude. It’s a chance to really reflect deeply in the nature, quality and productivity of our relationship with Pacific island countries and in particular the Cook Islands. We always knew the relationship was close but how do we make it fit for purpose going forward? The Cook Islands is in a really interesting phase in the development: it has done incredibly well economically and it’s about to graduate to a developed status. So how do we support the Cook Islands as it looks at the opportunities that are coming its way, the challenges that it will face? How do we make that relationship work for the future prosperity and stability of the Cook Islands?

CI News: The Cook Islands and New Zealand are known for maintaining close ties. How do you plan to maintain this relationship and possibly further strengthen it?

HC Te Mata: I don’t need to do much about the strength of the people to people ties. We know that about two third of the tourists that come to the Cook Islands are from New Zealand, we know that there is a large Cook Islands community in New Zealand. I think those historical and family ties are incredibly close, I don’t see anything changing in that regard. Just recently there are New Zealand rugby players coming up here and we have had officials from Department of Corrections. People are coming and going constantly and I want to encourage those direct links. They don’t have to come through the High Commission, it’s nice to know who is. In terms of strengthening the ties, one thing that really interests me is there are a lot more young Cook Islanders in New Zealand who are starting to look to the Cook Islands.  They want to know more about their heritage. And many are graduates or entrepreneurs:  they have amazing skill sets. Frankly when it comes to IT, I’m partly intimidated and seriously impressed to what I see going on among these young entrepreneurs. So given all of that interest, how do we utilise that here in the Cook Islands?  Yes you are building up capability here but there is also an opportunity to capitalise on all that interest in people from New Zealand who want to spend time here.

CI News: You sound like an ambitious person and someone who takes her career seriously. What’s your ultimate (diplomatic) goal? Is this the stepping stone to something bigger?

HC Te Mata: The Cook Islands isn’t a stepping stone, this is the goal. I have done a lot of different things in the ministry: trade, security, political and development. All those skills and experiences are converging here. This is where I wanted to be. I love living in Wellington but when this opportunity came up - I jumped. I have never been one to calculate what career steps to take.  Whatever job I have I do to my utmost.  So far, I have had amazing experiences all over the world.  What happens in future, that’s up to the Lord but here’s where I am and this is very much where I want to be.

CI News: I understand you were part of PACER Plus. The Cook Islands has put a hold on this trade deal. Will you be involved in some capacity helping the Cook Islands decide on this agreement?

HC Te Mata: I was a chief negotiator on behalf of New Zealand for the past three years.  I understand a lot of the details especially the motivation behind what we were all striving to achieve. Of course New Zealand wants the Cook Islands to ratify PACER Plus and be part of unlocking all the agreement’s benefits but that’s for the Cook Islands to decide, not us. But because of my direct involvement, if there are questions, if there are ways to try to make things work better, then I’m available to talk about that.

CI News: We have had attempts of Cook Islands trying to become a member of the United Nations. What’s your comment on this issue?

HC Te Mata: The Cook Islands is already active in a number of regional and international organisations and every organisation comes with different requirements and different levels of commitment and so again something like UN membership, there are requirements and consequences from that, and that’s something the Cook Islands have to think very seriously about.

CI News: Name change is also a burning issue at the moment. You are a part Cook Islander, what is your personal and professional opinion on this matter?

HC Te Mata: I think at the end of the day, this is something for the people of the Cook Islands to work through. It’s really interesting to see the work that the Ariki are doing in that regard and the consultation process they want to go through but seriously it is a matter for the Cook Islands and I would be really interested to see what comes out of those deliberations.

CI News: Anything else you would like to add.

HC Te Mata: I have worked in lot of different places over the years, some amazing places, but when I think about the savvy and energy here I just really want to partner with that and see what more we can do together in the next few years.   

*Linda Te Puni was New Zealand's first High Commissioner to the Cook Islands in 2010-2011. She was the first woman and a Maori woman to take that role, this was also at a time that the Deputy High Commissioner was a Maori woman namely Nicola Ngawati.

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