GREAT BARRIER ISLAND: DIPLOMATIC ADVENTURES IN RURAL NEW ZEALAND

Deputy British High Commissioner Helen Smith chronicles her recent visit to one of the most remote parts of Aotearoa

When an emailed pinged into my inbox from Gendie Somerville-Ryan inviting me to speak to the Awana Rural Women’s group on Great Barrier Island, I had two thoughts:

1) Where is Great Barrier Island?

2) How on earth do I get there?

As a diplomat based in the capital of your host country, it is all too easy to form a view of that country based solely on the experiences of the urban professionals you meet day in, day out. But to really understand a country and the context in which government policy decisions are made, you need to open yourself up to a broad spectrum of experiences. And so — a quick Google Maps search later — I decided that the opportunity to visit such a small, isolated, rural community was too good to pass up. Even if it did mean flying in this*:

*No criticism of Barrier Air is intended, I’m just a bit of a nervous flyer.

The main purpose of my visit was to speak to the Rural Women’s group about Modern Britain. I talked about Britain as innovative, open, and engaged: 900,000 new businesses established in the last 5 years; a history of tolerance, understanding and diversity; and the only major country in the world today that meets the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and the UN target of contributing 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development.

We then had an engaging discussion across a broad range of topics — never assume that an isolated community is cut off from events in the rest of the world. Barrier’s mobile and internet connectivity means they are well and truly plugged in! That became clear again later in the afternoon, when Kathy at Aotea FM — the local, volunteer-run radio station — gave me a grilling on the UK, migration, the EU and the Royal Family which you can listen to here:

Gendie was a great host. As well as my meeting with the Rural Women, she made sure I had the opportunity to see the many different sides of island life — visiting two of the island’s schools; meeting members of the local iwi; and visiting Caity and Gerald at Okiwi Passion, a small organic market garden business.

Three things I learned:

  • The island has great primary school provision — three schools covering 99 pupils aged 5–12. But for high school the options are limited: move off island; send your child to boarding school (if you can afford it); or distance learning. Schooling was the number one topic of conversation with all the parents I met. They are not alone — remote communities in the UK face similar challenges and this is something the Scottish Government in particular has grappled with.
  • Sustaining a small business is a challenge on an island with a population of 939. 31% of people are self-employed or running single-employee businesses. They rely on good weather and a good tourist season to keep going. Cash flow through the winter is always an issue. But 45% of the population is now over 55, and with more wealthy retirees moving to the island, there are increasing opportunities for small businesses in the services sector.
  • In a small community, there is added incentive to get involved. 34% of people volunteer on the Barrier, above the national rate of 30.6%. Everyone I spoke to cared deeply about local issues and the future of the island.

The final thing I learned is that Great Barrier Island is a truly special place. Pristine beaches, ocean views I could stare at all day long, and warm, welcoming people who did everything possible to make my visit both educational and enjoyable.

I’ll be heading back there, but next time I’ll be taking my swimsuit and leaving my blackberry at home…

You can follow Helen Smith on Twitter and the UK in New Zealand on Twitter and Facebook

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