COOK ISLANDS: Pacific leaders have made a symbolic gesture on climate change by planting trees on the Cook Islands paradise of Tapuaetai Island, where they’ll hold their main talks of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key each planted a young mahogany tree in the island’s white sand alongside the forum’s other leaders on Thursday morning (local time).
Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna told media the tree-planting acknowledges the arrival of “the esteemed leaders to this wonderful place”, along with the Pacific’s commitment to lessening its collective carbon footprint.
The leaders also posed for the annual “silly shirts” photo, wearing blue, hand-painted tropical shirts made in the Cook Islands, with their colours intended to represent the forum’s Large Ocean Island States theme.
Mr Marles is representing Australia after Prime Minister Julia Gillard rushed home on Wednesday night following the news five soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan in two separate incidents.
He said Ms Gillard’s return home was the right thing to do, and other Pacific leaders understood her reasons.
Mr Marles told media he knows he has big shoes to fill, and will do his best.
“I’ve started that with the planting of a tree, which, as we’ve been instructed, needs to be visited every year, and I’ll be telling our prime minister that she needs to be back here next year – to make sure the tree’s going well,” he said.
Mr Key said Australia’s issues at the forum were very closely aligned to New Zealand’s, and he has left Ms Gillard a voicemail message to say he would raise the topics they discussed at their bilateral meeting on Wednesday morning.
“I’ll certainly obviously be raising the issue of gender equality, which is an important issue that Julia was going to raise, and a couple of issues like that. But I’m sure Richard Marles will do a good job of representing them.”
Mr Key said the Pacific leaders have “quite a lot of unity” on all issues, including Fiji, which has been suspended from the forum since 2009.
“There always will be a range of views and there will be some who just say `look, it’s been a long time, maybe we should just move on’, but I still don’t think that’s the right message, to be saying we’re endorsing (Fiji’s military government).”
The leaders will release a forum communique, stating their updated position on Fiji, later on Thursday, before returning to Rarotonga, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to arrive on Thursday night for the post-forum dialogue on Friday.