NZ FIJI BUSINESS COUNCIL
THE FIRST 25 YEARS
Discussions around the establishment of a business council began through the Auckland Manufacturers Association in the mid 1980’s.
Early drivers of the initiative included Bill Williams of Carter Holt Harvey and Gilbert Ulrich.
The October 1987 coup accelerated these discussions to when both councils were formally established in November 1987.
The key driver was recognition of the importance of retaining a line of communication for business, irrespective of the relationship between the governments at any time.
Early discussions had included proposals for the CEO of BNZ to take the chair and lead the council, but as a result of the coup and subsequent breakdown in relationships between the two governments, BNZ closed its Fiji operations.
Thus, there was a rapid search for an appropriate replacement.
Sedgwick’s, the insurance brokers were active in both countries, and their CEO quickly suggested one of their board members, for the role.
Harold Titter was a leading NZ businessman and brought not only his experience, but his credibility to the position and to the council.
Harold, along with his wife, or as he fondly calls her “his bride”, Margaret, proved to be excellent leaders.
I would also like to acknowledge all of the Past Presidents; Harold, Ross Biggar, Peter Farrell, Hugh Campbell, Francis Mortimer, the late John Williams, John McLennan, and of course our current President Rick Reid. They are listed on the honours board, in the back of the room.
At this stage I would like to make special mention of one of the inaugural Executive Committee, and a person that has played a significant role in the activities and success of the council.
Peter Thompson, is a life member of the council, and is currently Fiji’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Peter’s close ties to Fiji, his positive attitude, his credibility and his belief in building the relationships between the two countries has made a huge contribution to the Council.
So we come to the 1st Joint Conference – held in early (February?) 1989, at “the Fijian” (now Shangri-la).
The only NZ government representative was Terence O’Brien – Deputy Secretary of MFAT. (then a very senior NZ Trade Official.)
He only stayed briefly! The government to government relationship at the time was at best touchy and somewhat distant.
Early conferences featured “theme nights” and a “sports challenge”.
The theme nights or dress-ups were fun, and there was often a need to be quite innovative with tee shirts too large, or too small, Sulus and just what to do with them! There are some pictures on display featuring some of those events.
The “sporting challenges” were hotly contested, for the annual challenge trophy – golf, bowls, tug of war, and one occasion kayak racing.
We have had some great joint conferences and we have had some memorable moments.
- Walking in the dark, with Fiji warriors jumping out of the bushes on the way to a Fijian feast under the stars.
- Dinner on the island – just off Denarau, with delegates ferried across.
- The formal Maori welcome given Mr Rambuka at Waitangi in NZ’s Far North (and his “socialability”) – well into the early hours!
- Dinner at the Wicked Walu on the coral coast – completed with sea snakes slithering up the walls.
- NZ’s Minister of Trade, Hon. John Luxton along with several others getting very sick at/following a conference at the same venue.
- On that occasion we were all booked for the flight home, when the Minister took ill and both he and his bags were offloaded while we all sat – for about an hour!
- I well remember one or two of Fiji’s government officials, at an early conference, probably mid 1990’s, keen to promote major deregulation in Fiji, along the lines of NZ’s economic restructuring in the late 1980’s. I cautioned them at the time, noting the disruption it caused and suggesting the outcomes were not yet proven!
- The singing “competitions” between Fiji and NZ at early conferences – not really competitions, as NZ never won, and in fact most of our efforts were less than memorable – enthusiastic perhaps but far from compelling.
- Horse racing on the beach, at the Warwick. Not us riding – but certainly picking/betting on a horse. From memory not really thoroughbreds. Certainly not Sir Tristram, Zabeel or Sunline.
- Over the years many of our joint conferences have been aligned with major rugby matches. I am not sure why, other than to add to the attraction of travelling to the conference of course.
- I recall a conference at the Stamford Plaza here in Auckland (it may have been the regent then) when one of our delegates elected to confront some protestors outside the hotel, which resulted in an altercation, an arrest, and subsequently in our legal counsel, Robert Falvey, negotiating his release.
- On another occasion, we had protestors camped outside of the Auckland Manufacturers Association offices (pre EMA days) in Remuera Road, complete with kava bowl, hoping to confront the Fiji Ambassador, following a meeting with the Council. He conveniently left by the back door and the protestors were denied their “confrontation”.
- Venues for the NZ based conferences have generally been in Auckland, with only one in Waitangi and another in Wellington.
The Wellington one was memorable, if only because the All Blacks were staying at the same hotel. I am sure that Francis will recall that one!
- We have had some tremendous speakers over the years – perhaps the one that made the biggest impact on me, or at least of those that I remember, was Mark Solomon, CEO of Ngai Tahu, the majority Maori presence in the South Island.
There have been some big issues that we have addressed over the years.
Initially it was the trade balance between the two countries. However, only once to my knowledge did it ever get to 1:1. That was a year when NZ imported $50m of gold from Fiji.
There were some huge difficulties for some of our rag traders that had established production plants in Fiji, in getting duty drawbacks, after exporting the made-up garments. Then Fiji Ambassador Ted Beddoes was called in, when the amount get to $500,000 and the issue was resolved.
The volatility in business confidence, and the economy, caused by successive coups, and the variation in government policies.
In fact, the political/diplomatic relationship between the two countries has been a significant constraint on the development of trade.
Bio security issues seem to have been with us the whole time, although there has been some progress, as we can now import pineapples from Fiji.
It’s been interesting to see the change of membership within the Council over the years, to some extent reflecting international trade arrangements.
The advent of Sparteca, and the pending impact of the deregulation in NZ, encouraged a number of local apparel manufacturers, to look offshore for production, including Fiji, so our conferences at that time were heavily weighted around the apparel industry.
The subsequent removal of import licensing and reduction in tariffs, saw that offshore production move in turn to importing made-up garments from Hong Kong, china and the like.
As we look back on the first 25 years of the NZ Fiji Business Council, we can and should be proud of what it has achieved and its longevity, despite at times facing significant challenges.
The Council by and large has retained its credibility with successive governments, we have continued to provide that line of communication we so earnestly sought to ensure all those years ago, and we have contributed significantly toward the business relationships between the two countries.
Harold specifically asked that I acknowledge the role of the Auckland Manufacturers Association (established 1886), and subsequently the EMA, in providing secretarial services and support to the Council from the beginning. Having the longevity and credibility of the Association as the home of the NZ Fiji Business Council has given it a strong foundation and added to its substance.
It would be remiss of me in preparing these brief notes, not to make specific mention of the government officials, from both countries, and acknowledge the outstanding role they have played in building the trade and economic relationships between our two countries over the years.
I well remember, or at least sort of recall the early part of the evening, in dinner meetings with Minister Ben Vunibobo – now he was a character.
Finally, i would like to acknowledge the support and contribution of all members over the 25 years. It is your organisation, and you will get out of it something roughly equivalent to what you put in!
For most of you that has been substantial. Congratulations on the first 25 years, and the very best wishes for the next 25.
Auckland 23 August 2012