A conference was convened entitled “Pacific Law, Custom and Constitutionalism, Part I: A conversation between Aotearoa/NZ and Samoa” at Auckland University from 12-14 February 2018. It was hosted with the generous support of the New Zealand Law Foundation, the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research (NZIPR), the Gaualofa Trust, the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, the Pacific Lawyers’ Association, the Office of Pasifika Advancement and the School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), and the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Law at the University of Auckland. Without the financial or in-kind support of sponsors and the tireless work of the organizing committee, the conference would not have gone ahead. Furthermore, given the short time-frame available to organize the conference and the fact that cyclone Gita hit the Pacific only days before the conference was to commence causing flight delays and cancellations, conference organisers were anxious about whether keynote speakers and participants would be able to make it. Thankfully they did and the conference happened and happened successfully.

The Conference was held at the Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland, and ran over two days (Tuesday 13th and Wednesday 14th of February), with a special ‘ava ceremony and pre-conference talanoa session with high school & tertiary students on the afternoon of Monday, 12th February. A conference dinner was held on the evening of Tuesday where participants enjoyed an address by Dame Tariana Turia.

Approximately 150 attendees attended overall. They came from a wide range of sectors, from high school and tertiary students to members of the public who work across the law profession, different government sectors, the academy, and from Auckland based and Samoa based communities. A small number of attendees also came from outside of Auckland: from Wellington and Christchurch, Australia – namely Brisbane, and other parts of the Pacific – namely, Fiji. The four Samoan keynote speakers all came from Samoa, while the other two keynote speakers were Maori leaders in their respective fields (politics and theological education). The conference was privileged to have Sir Anand Satyanand give the opening remarks. The University of Auckland’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts Professor Robert Greenberg welcomed participants to the conference on behalf of the University of Auckland (see picture 1 below), and the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor Andrew Stockley closed the conference.

One of the key objectives of the conference was to generate a Pacific-led conversation about three key issues pertinent to law and governance in the contemporary Pacific: traditional leadership, customary land tenure and religious rights and freedoms. The conversations held did not disappoint. They, as was expected, were highly emotionally charged at times, but were informative throughout in both explicit and implicit ways, offering participants many moments for pause and reflection, and for deeper conversations during breaks.

Natalie Baird, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Canterbury, and participant in the conference’s panel on ‘Implications for Legal Practice, Legislative Drafting and Constitutional Law Reform’, praised the inclusion of high school students in the conference’s programme stating that, “I thought one of the best features of the Conference was having the high school students there – hopefully it will have inspired many of them to think about some of the issues from a different perspective, and no doubt it will inspire them for further tertiary studies”.

This conference was the first in a three-part conference series, with the next two focusing on Tonga in 2019 and on the three New Zealand Pacific territories of Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau in 2020. The conference series envisages creating a space for New Zealand to hold a meaningful conversation about Pacific law, custom and constitutionalism as it relates to (a) New Zealanders who live in New Zealand but have ongoing relationships and responsibilities within the Pacific islands, and as it relates to (b) New Zealand as a country in the Pacific, with a significant role to play in law and constitution making in the Pacific. To this end, another participant, a member of the audience, not only supported the inclusion of high school students in this conference, but underlined the importance of just holding a critical conversation:

“I enjoyed the youth presence and voice. It is imperative if we are to move forward in all areas of law, custom and constitutionalism that we enjoy and connect with our future practitioners and researchers. They are the more relevant than we are to this discussion. Great start to critical dialogue”.

Another aim of the conference was to hold the dialogue bi-lingually – in Samoan and English. This was certainly achieved with both keynote and panel speakers using both Samoan and English, as well as the audience. The particular topic areas covered in the conference were highly topical because of recent and proposed constitutional reforms taking place in Samoa and public critiques of these. Comments of appreciation were made by participants about the timeliness of the conference.

Media coverage of the conference also allowed for wider audience participation in the themes of the dialogue. Associate Professor Tamasailau Suaalii-Sauni held radio interviews with Radio New Zealand Pacific, Radio 5.31PI, and Niu FM (these were done live and are available on facebook) on the conference and its aims, acknowledging all sponsors, including NZIPR. A conference proceedings publication will be released at the end of this year (2018). The conference website will continue to be updated  until the conference series is over. Conference organizers are grateful to all those who helped to make this first conference a success – Faafetai tele lava!