New US Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall on Māori culture, climate change, China and trade

04 Dec 2021 9:43 AM | Mike Hearn (Administrator)

The new United States ambassador to Aotearoa New Zealand says some of his "proudest achievements" have been with his country's indigenous peoples and is "thrilled" to work here alongside Māori.

Tom Udall, who arrived in the country a little over 10 days ago with his wife Jill Cooper, recited a pepeha - traditional Māori introduction - as he spoke to reporters here for the first time.

"I love these greetings, I have heard them all my life.

"What we share, many of our tribes, is this love and attachment to the land... pass it on as good stewards to the next generation."

Udall, 73, also ambassador to Sāmoa, is one of the first appointments made under President Joe Biden's administration, and replaces Scott Brown, who was appointed by Donald Trump and left his post in December last year.

It comes as the United States globally looks to counter China's sphere of influence, particularly in the Pacific.

Udall, a Democrat, retired in 2021 after two terms in the US Senate representing New Mexico.

Udall has said some of his "proudest achievements" came through working working with Native American tribal leaders in his state, including progressing tribal self-governance, native language revitalisation and protecting sacred areas.

He was also instrumental in helping secure $8 billion in funding for tribal governments in their Covid-19 responses.

Upon stepping down from his post, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Udall had been an "advocate and champion for the Navajo people".

During a press conference today at his residence in Lower Hutt, Udall said he was very keen to learn as much as he could about Māori culture.

Asked what he'd learned during his work with tribes, he said the importance of sovereignty.

"The first thing is, is the indigenous people of New Mexico, the Native Americans really care about the fact that they are nations within the nation, and they care about their sovereignty."

Udall said his role here was to represent Biden, who he'd interned for in 1973 and who'd been a "good friend ever since".

His three main priorities here were climate change and the "existential crisis", working closely with allies in the Indo Pacific, and developing a "very good working relationship" particularly with the country's indigenous people.

"I think there's going to be a lot of interest in New Zealand, especially in the Indo Pacific region."

On the recent Australia, United Kingdom and United States security pact - AUKUS - Udall said New Zealand was "not sidelined", despite being left out.

On China's rise and increasing presence through the Pacific, Udall said it was "very complicated".

"You have an adversarial side and a competitive side."

There were the human rights issues, and then "challenges" in areas such as the South China Sea, he said. But there was increasing common ground in areas such as addressing climate change.

"There's been a big effort by our government already to work on climate change with China and I was very happy that John Kerry in his role met with his counterpart while COP26 was going on."

In New Zealand, he said he was looking forward to working with on renewable energy, including geothermal, hydro and expansions into wind and solar.

On a potential free trade agreement with the United States in the future, Udall said there was much common ground including around diversifying trade.

"We're a big free trader, we like to trade. So we should be interested in engaging there and discussing with them and see what we can do."

Udall and his wife completed a stint in managed isolation upon their arrival in the country. On Wednesday he presented his credentials as ambassador to Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro.

Prior to becoming a senator, Udall spent five terms in the US House of Representatives and served as New Mexico's attorney general.

He comes from a family well known for public service: his father Stewart Udall served as Interior Secretary, his uncle Mo Udall was a congressman from Colorado and his cousin Mark Udall was a senator from Colorado.