The Honourable New Zealand Minister of Defence.
Honourable Ministers and members of the Fijian Parliament,
The Pro-Chancellor and Chair of the USP Council,
The Vice Chancellor and President of the University,
Air Vice Marshal Kevin Short of the New Zealand Defence Force and service personnel,
Your Excellency, the New Zealand High Commissioner to Fiji,
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula vinaka, Tena Koutou and a very good afternoon to you all,

Today is a day of wonderful memories for many of us, and especially for those of you who once lived and worked here when it was a Royal New Zealand Air Force base and have returned five decades later to your old home. On behalf of every Fijian, I extend a special welcome to you all. You are among friends who deeply appreciate your own personal service to Fiji. And especially the strong bonds you helped forge between our nations so long ago that endure to this day.

Today is also a day of celebration, as 50 years on, we unveil a permanent monument to the RNZAF’s service to Fiji and also mark the first half century of the University of the South Pacific. I’m proud that we have an artist in Fiji of the calibre of Shane Bower with the skill and imagination to come up with such a striking design. A fusion of technology and nature in the form of a Sunderland flying boat with the wings of a seabird. Vinaka vakalevu, Shane. Savusavu has a special reason to be proud today.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, those of us of a certain age – and I am one of them – can still see in our mind’s eye the mighty Sunderlands that used to lumber over Suva as they came into land at Laucala Bay. We still remember the roar of their engines and the splash they made as they hit the water, landing as gracefully as any bird.

In those days before television and the Internet, it was a favoured weekend pastime for countless families to come down and watch the take offs and landings. For any child like me at the time, it was hugely exciting. And we also remember the dashing Kiwi flight crews and support teams who became a part of the life of Suva but who suddenly left us one day in 1967. Roaring off into the distance and leaving behind a sudden stillness. And undoubtedly some broken hearts.

It was the end of an era not only for the RNZAF but for every citizen of Suva who’d become used to the overhead drone of the Sunderlands and the Catalinas before them. It was a reassuring sound – not a source of irritation – because you provided a sense of security, first in wartime and then through the many search and rescue missions you undertook that saved Fijian lives and the lives of our Pacific neighbours.

The Kiwi presence here at Laucala Bay spanned 25 years from 1942 – at the height of World War Two - to 1967, when the facilities here were turned over to create the University of the South Pacific – our first regional university.

In September 1942, the 5 Squadron of the RNZAF transferred to Laucala Bay from the New Zealand mainland to take advantage of our strategic position for its wartime operations against Japan. Initially using Singapore Flying Boats and then Catalinas, the Squadron performed anti-submarine patrols and kept watch on the movements of suspected enemy ships and aircraft.

Even during the war, the Catalinas were also used for humanitarian purposes, including air-sea rescues and to transport essential items to various Pacific islands. Post war, the number of military staff declined, but the Catalinas continued to carry out air-sea rescues and maritime reconnaissance. Throughout its life, the base was a large employer of Fijians, sustained a range of businesses and contributed greatly to the health of the local economy.

When the Lau group was devastated by a hurricane in 1949, the Squadron flew emergency flights to 11 of its islands carrying vital food and medical supplies. In September 1951, with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the United States, New Zealand was assigned the principal responsibility for surveillance of the South West Pacific and the Catalinas were replaced with Sunderland Flying Boats. And throughout the 1950s and 1960s, these aircraft performed important intelligence gathering, search and rescue and medi-vac missions across the region.

Among other things, they were engaged in the search for the missing vessel “Joyita” in 1955, the rescue of shipwrecked survivors from Minerva Reef in 1962. And more happily in 1963, supported the Royal Visit to Fiji by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Today we commemorate that proud record of service by the RNZAF to our region, which continues to this day with the aerial reconnaissance and rescue missions you still fly from the New Zealand mainland. We have been newly reminded of their vital importance just this week when one of your Orions located two missing fishermen from Kiribati adrift in their small boat 300 kilometres from home.

Imagine the joy those men felt when – vulnerable and seemingly without hope in that vast expanse of ocean – the RNZAF lumbered into view. There have been many happy endings like this in the annals of your proud history. And for this, we salute you.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, new friendships were forged just over two years ago when New Zealand came to our rescue in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston. The smiles and “can do” attitude of the flight surveillance crews and the sailors aboard the Canterbury left an indelible impression on Fijians in the affected areas. And to the Honourable Minister of Defence and the contingent of Kiwi servicemen and women here today, every Fijian joins me in again saying vinaka vakalevu, nga mihi, thank you.

The ties we forged so long ago continue. They include close cooperation on defence and security and the policing of Fiji’s Exclusive Economic Zone. We especially appreciated the deployment last year of HMNZS Hawea for our Operation Wasawasa against illegal fishing. And we look forward to further joint operations in the future, as well as the continuation of our policing, customs and border security arrangements for Fiji and the region.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, half a century ago, the RNZAF left us with a sound foundation on which to build this university. Money that would have otherwise had to be spent on building facilities was able to be focused on delivering quality education. And New Zealand continues to partner with Fiji and other Pacific countries to ensure that our young people are properly equipped to play their part in our development. As well as its close engagement with USP, New Zealand is working with Fiji’s Higher Education Commission to strengthen the standard of tertiary education in Fiji.

I also want to acknowledge – as President of COP23 – the support that New Zealand is providing for our presidency and your own commitment to the struggle against climate change. We look forward to working closely with the new government of Prime Minister Ardern to achieve maximum ambition and maximum action to reduce carbon emissions. And especially the forthcoming Talanoa Dialogue on raising the ambition of our Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs.

It is critically important that we commit as a global community to limit the global temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above that of the pre-industrial age. With our current NDCs, we are heading for 3 degrees, which would spell disaster for everyone on the planet.

So Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a fight just as perilous as the one we faced together in World War Two, if not more so. A fight for our very survival. And Fijians and other Pacific islanders look to New Zealanders to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the climate struggle, just as you did more than 70 years ago.

It is an honour to welcome the New Zealand Defence Minister and your delegation to Fiji and we look forward to more high-level visits in the future, including your Prime Minister, when the demands of a new baby permit it. We’re very good with babies here in Fiji so it will be warmly welcomed too.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, as with every family, Fiji and New Zealand have sometimes had our disagreements. But the friendship and, for many of our people, the kinship between Fijians and Kiwis is unbreakable. And we will always come to each other’s assistance, especially in times of crisis.

I take great pride in representing the Fijian people in the unveiling of this Commemorative Monument to the 5 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and also to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of the South Pacific. And as we celebrate this special day in our relationship, I ask you to convey the warmest greetings of every Fijian to the New Zealand people.

Vinaka vakalevu. Nga Mihi. Thank you.