As a young teenager growing up in a seaside suburb of Christchurch who never encountered a Samoan until college, the now former New Zealand High Commission to Samoa, David Nicholson, probably never imagined that he would one day be posted to an island nation.
His early resignation from the New Zealand post surprised many on the island who had become familiar with the cheerful and approachable statesman at many official and social events around the country.
Striking a good balance between his sunny disposition and pragmatic diplomacy, Mr. Nicholson has achieved much in his short time in Samoa.
In an interview with the Samoa Observer, Mr. Nicholson spoke openly about his experience during his 19-month tenure as the High Commissioner, sharing his views and advice on the enduring and sometimes tense relationship between Samoa and New Zealand.
“ A colleague of mine once said to me that a diplomat is someone who thinks about an issue, thinks about it again and then does nothing about it.’ what I have tried to do during my time here is to be more authentic about that and if I say yes then I will make it my mandate to make it happen,” he said.
“Its been an intense time here because I’ve tried to do things fast and I try to get things done. My background is not in diplomacy but it is in implementation - I’ve been a second tier public servant in education, health and tertiary education. I’ve worked across government in lots of areas and the biggest challenge with government is getting things done in a timely manner.”
With prior experience working as the Director of the Pacific Development Division for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nicholson came to Samoa and immediately adopted a mindset that he believes is absolutely vital to executing his role effectively.
“Pacific Competence is very important,” he said. “I believe we can have a lot more delegated to the post to do in terms of information of aid programmes - there’s too much implementation trickling in from Wellington.
“Context is everything, when people talk about the Pacific in Wellington, they use a generic noun and as you know, you go to different Pacific countries and they are all very different.
“Understanding the difference and that context means that your approach will be very different and varied. You might have development policy, take in the Pacific for example. But it’s never quite right in any one place and it’s like in New Zealand, you develop a policy that will fit Auckland but not the east coast.”
“What I have seen here is that our aid process is full of process and it takes a long time to get through to implementation. The good thing about our implementation is we are focused on quality to do a good job but I would like for us get the job done faster.
“A lot of the process has to do with risk management but if you look across the aid programme – a lot of things fail. And it doesn’t matter how much process or risk management you took into account, they failed and part of that is because they haven’t taken the local context into account.”
Samoan family connections
Beyond his background experience of working in Pacific development, Mr. Nicholson’s family connections to Samoa are strong and add to his own very Pacific way of doing things.
Married to a Samoan Dr. Debbie Ryan who is also the Director for Consultancy, Pacific Perspectives, the former High Commissioner feels strong familial bonds to Samoa. This has contributed to his ability to successfully navigate around potential cultural mines as well as communicate confidently across different sectors here in Samoa.
“I feel very fortunate to have the relationships I’ve had with people and very quickly integrate into the community - I think it’s partly because my wife is Samoan,” he smiles.
“I’m rather forthright and direct and try to be authentic and honest. I’ve had a very easy relationship with the Prime Minister and the government ministers and that’s with access to decision makers and leaders have been very straightforward and very productive, I believe in the principles of development effectiveness you talk to the local partner about what it is they want to lead and how you can help and I rallied against those aspects of the programme where New Zealand makes decisions and implements them in Samoa.”
Mr. Nicholson extended his Pacific competence to how he mentored and empowered his staff at the New Zealand High Commission, particularly the local Samoan staff.
“There are only three seconded officers from New Zealand generally, they are only here for three years. What I tried to do here is take our local staff who are all highly qualified and are joint citizens of Samoa and New Zealand and have them lead in the sectors where they are doing the work.
“What I’ve tried to do is put New Zealand’s confidence in them that they are speaking for New Zealand and I appreciate that’s not often easy for local staff because they have to represent a New Zealand view which might not always be concordant with the Samoan view but to mentor them in around the system because they are the enduring people that remain at post.”
One of the main highlights during Mr. Nicholson’s time here was his role in helping to facilitate and develop a business case to the New Zealand and Samoan governments for the use of the Yazaki factory when the company closed its operations a year ago.
It was a moment that moved Mr. Nicholson knowing that hundreds of Samoans were losing their jobs. Moving away from the traditional role of a diplomat, Mr. Nicholson was in his zone actively making moves to implement. They developed a business case in just four days to present to the Samoan and New Zealand governments.
“A project like that would take a couple of years to develop the concept and design but we did a business case in four days,” he said.
“And we got that funding for Samoa which meant that we could facilitate the entry of those two New Zealand companies.
“Getting that to happen required a lot of knowledge of Samoan system, a lot of knowledge of the matrix of responsibilities across government departments, they are not as clear cut as in new Zealand and a lot of negotiation. So I was pretty active in that area and that’s not really the traditional role of a diplomat but our role is to help new Zealanders be safe and prosper in the world so that seemed to be a very good outcome.”
Role with Tokelau
The only other thing shorter than Mr. Nicholson’s tenure as the New Zealand High Commission was his time as the Tokelau Administrator - no one could say that his time here was uneventful as he recounted a rare moment of regret at never being able to pursue his ambitions for a more inter dependent relationship between Samoa and Tokelau.
“For the brief period where I was the administrator for Tokelau, I was given a brief by then Minister Mccully which was a very tough brief about taking control of expenditure in Tokelau,” he said. “Unfortunately Minister McCully left in May, the ongoing leadership in M.F.A.T did not maintain that position.
“I always felt that developing a service relationship between Samoa and Tokelau was the way to go. If I had been allowed to be more operational I would have really had strong contractual agreements between Samoa’s shipping and Tokelau and then Tokelau wouldn’t have needed to buy that 8 million cargo vessel sitting out there in the harbour.”
“I had hoped that I would be supported for investment in Samoa and Tokelau. The inter dependence for the two countries is very high and the direct relationships between New Zealand and Tokelau can only be done through Samoa.”
Treaty of Friendship
Underpinning Mr. Nicholson’s passion for strengthening relations between New Zealand and Samoa for mutual gain was the enduring commitments to each other as outlined in the Friendship of Treaty. He emphasized that people need to read the treaty carefully and fully comprehend the meaning of ‘special circumstances’ that differentiates the relationship between Samoa and New Zealand from other nations.
“The problem is everyone knows there’s a treaty but no one reads it,” he said. “Within that there’s a whole lot of commitments and I would have thought if we embraced that very, very closely we might do things a bit differently.
“The Treaty of Friendship have got some incredible commitments of countries to one another and it maintains that the relationship between Samoa and New Zealand will be held in special circumstances and those special circumstances are exemplified in the quota but I would have thought we needed to use those as an acid test for all aspects of our development relationship going forward.
“Under the Treaty of Friendship model, you might expect out of the ‘Pacific Reset’ to see a level of support coming into Samoa that might exceed some other Pacific countries and not be the same as others. I think it’s a very beneficial document and I think we should be very familiar with it and use it as an acid test.”
Beyond that, Mr. Nicholson goes on to say that overall he has experienced very few challenges in Samoa itself having felt the level of hospitality shown to him ( which he suspects has something to do with his Samoan wife) was nothing short of amazing. Intelligent, pragmatic and compassionate, Nicholson was also unapologetically exuberant which made him even more endearing to the locals,
“ People in the street just call out to me using my Christian name, they’re just amazing,” he laughs. “Part of that comes from having a Samoan wife and the other thing is I’ve got a bit of an outgoing personality – take it or leave it”
The former New Zealand High Commissioner left last weekend for Wellington but he told the Samoa Observer that his time here were filled with unforgettable experiences - his only regret was that he did not make time to take advantage of easy access to deep sea fishing in Samoa.
But perhaps his proudest moment (which he hopes the New Zealand post will continue doing) was seeing the New Zealand High Commission office march in the Independence Day parade this year.
“A really unique experience for me are things like attending Independence day. To be a part of that has been quite a privilege and quite an experience and last year at Independence my wife said to me ‘ why aren’t you marching?
“Wouldn’t this be a great mark of respect to Samoa to see the New Zealand High Commission marching?” so this year based on my wife’s advice – we marched. We got unbelievable feedback, fantastic experience and the warmth and respect that it generated from people and I suspect that next year you’ll see a lot of diplomatic posts marching.”