Tessa Temata views her appointment as New Zealand’s High Commissioner-designate to the Cook Islands as an opportunity to bring together all she has learnt over a 25 year career in the service of countries who have helped make her who she is today.
The former Deputy Divisional Manager for Pacific Trade and Values is the first High Commissioner to the Cook Islands of Cook Islands descent, and it is an appointment which means a great deal to Tessa, she says.
“To have this role is a chance to be part of the conversation about what a productive and innovative relationship looks like in the 21st century,” Tessa says.
“It is a chance to close the circle on voyages that saw my parents leave their homes to pursue a vision of a better future for children that hadn’t even been born; and it is a chance to honour my home Aotearoa-New Zealand, a place that enabled me to do and to learn things I might never have dreamt of otherwise.”
Tessa is descended from Kaitini Ariki, the eldest child of Uke who settled the island of Mauke in the eastern part of the Cook Islands.
“My father Tiatoa Temata married my mother Jane Crichton, whose ‘aiga is from Asau in Samoa.
“The Pacific chapter of my Scottish heritage began in the 19th century with a sailor called William Crichton who decided to settle in Samoa.”
Tessa was born and raised in Taranaki, the seventh of nine children.
She says her father made the hard decision to raise his children as English speakers as there were no other Pacific families around and, at the time, he thought concentrating on English would work to best advantage for his children at school.
Tessa first met Pacific students, mostly from Samoa and Tokelau, when she attended high school.
“Growing up, my awareness of the Cook Islands was largely limited to visits with family and lots of wonderful kai.
“Ironically, I have spent far more time in Papua New Guinea (almost 10 years), where my husband was from, than in the Cook Islands or Samoa.
“However, while I was at university, I was the first of my siblings to go to Mauke – and spending time there with my father and learning more about my heritage had a profound effect.”
That time helped inform her interest in a career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), she adds.
A qualified lawyer, Tessa’s 25 year career has spanned Pacific development and strategy, international trade law, security and multilateralism in the United Nations as well as assignments in PNG, the Cook Islands, Indonesia, Kiribati and Niue.
She was formerly the Country Director for the NGO, HOPEworldwidePNG, and then Chief Executive of the PNG Esselars security company.
Putting her hand-up for the High Commissioner role came out of a desire to put strategy into practice.
“During the past three years, I have been involved in looking at the long-term strategic outlook for the Pacific and what New Zealand can do to help the Pacific meet some of the most complex challenges ever to face the region.
“At the same time, I was New Zealand’s Chief Negotiator for the PACER Plus trade and development agreement – an example of collaboratively designing a platform to help the Pacific Islands achieve greater prosperity.
“That time also made me more mindful of the dynamism and savvy of the Cook Islands in how it pursues bilateral, regional and multilateral issues.”
It was not hard to conclude if she wanted to go from long-term thinking and strategising to helping achieve concrete, game changing outcomes then the Cook Islands was exactly the place to help make something truly special happen.
“That it was also the home of my father and a beautiful tropical archipelago was a bonus.”
When Foreign Minister Rt Hon Winston Peters announced the Pacific Reset in February 2018, he was clear it would be a reset in attitude: a change to reflect deeply on the nature, quality and productivity of New Zealand’s relationships with Pacific Island countries, Tessa explains.
“To me, having a High Commissioner of Cook Island descent speaks very clearly to New Zealand’s commitment to an increasingly mature partnership and is a testimony to the authenticity and strength of our two countries’ common whakapapa.”
Tessa has many goals to accomplish while she is in the High Commissioner’s role and says what happens in the next few years will set the stage for the next few decades.
“The Cook Islands is at a unique time in its history … it is poised to graduate to developed status.
“That means the economy will need to become more productive but without sacrificing the character that makes the Cook Islands such an absurdly popular tourism destination.”
Right now there are Cook Islanders born and raised in New Zealand showing greater interest than ever before in the home of their ancestors; and there are those born and raised in the Cook Islands looking at the opportunities growing connectivity brings, while striving to stay in control of their destiny, she adds.
“I want to be part of an effort that sees New Zealand and the Cook Islands work out how to mobilise all those resources in constructive support of a vision of prosperity and well-being that reflects our unique identities and heritage.”
Kia mau te serenga, kia mau te napenga. (Hold on to your identity, hold on to your heritage); Kano e, kanokano atu ki te paerangi. (Move, and move onward steadily to the horizon.)