I bumped into New Zealand’s Ambassador Peter Kell on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t the first time as he’s quite active in his role and is now a constant and one of the most welcomed fixtures in Manila’s diplomatic events. It was, however, one of those encounters that leave you with quite the impression on someone. We were at a grocery store. I was cramming for media noche and he—right after finishing his walk—was picking up merienda for his team at the official residence. “One of them has her kid over so I thought I’d pick up some donuts,” he said.
One of the best qualities a diplomat can have is sincerity and it’s something one instantly notices in Kell. He’s well-loved by his embassy team for being a hardworking and affable boss. He’s quick to befriend Filipinos because of his ability to speak our language and his genuine interest in it. And no, I don’t mean him being limited to the token “Salamat po.”
“Ikinigagalak kong makilala kayo,” he once said—quite flawlessly at that—to a gaggle of journalists he met at an event. Everyone was impressed and it wasn’t just because some of us have a hard time saying this without tripping over our consonants. It’s the effort and the modesty that come through this gesture that truly win people over.
From fencing to diplomacy
Like most Kiwis, Kell grew up quite active. He got into fencing, even representing his country in international tournaments. “I was shooting for the Olympics. But I didn’t continue,” he said. It was his father who gave him the advice to go into foreign service, noting how he has the temperament for it by being someone who enjoys things that take time to learn—like languages and fencing. Being part Pacific Islander through his mom, Kell speaks Samoan along with French, Japanese, English, and now Filipino. He also knows a bit of Maori and Pidgin Solomon English, which he picked up while posted in the Solomon Islands.
After winning junior fencing titles in Australia and New Zealand, he got a scholarship in Japan, where he continued to play for the university team. His studies later focused on law and international relations and the rest was history. Kell continues to fence but his focus now when it comes to representing his country is through diplomacy.
His time as ambassador to the Philippines was interrupted by the pandemic yet as soon as things started opening up, he truly made it a point to kick relations back into gear. From providing higher education opportunities to Filipino students and revisiting areas of cooperation like climate action, empowering indigenous people (IP), agriculture, and more, Kell and his team have been extremely busy. “It’s an important relationship for financial, regional, multilateral reasons,” he said about the Philippines and New Zealand. “Because of that people connection, I believe it’s got potential to grow.”
‘You wear another set of clothes and another set of glasses to complement your national identity.’
New Zealand, a country of almost five million people, is a popular destination for Filipino scholars. “I think one of the trends of society particularly in the last 40-50 years, which is accelerated, is a different sense of identity and regionalism,” he said. With the Philippines and New Zealand both part of the Indo-Pacific region, Kell says there’s much to gain in learning from each other, understanding different worldviews through opportunities that a job or education provides. “At the end of the day, our challenges are global or regional in nature and you need to have other perspectives.” Having Filipino students in New Zealand is something he sees as a “brain share.” “You wear another set of clothes and another set of glasses to complement your national identity,” he added.
Not many people realize that New Zealand is the youngest country in the world, being the last landmass of magnitude to be discovered. “The first New Zealanders, the Polynesians, arrived about 900 years ago. Then the Europeans arrived and the 1700s to do whaling and then the first settlers arrived in the 1800s,” Kell said. Their young, pioneering society has a different relationship with nature. It has given them quite the experience in raising the profile of their IPs.
This is why the embassy is also active in helping institutions that provide education to IPs in the Philippines like the Pamulaan Center in Davao. Since the ’80s, New Zealand has been on a journey to acknowledge all the wrongs against their indigenous population. One of the ways they started to uplift their IPs is by recognizing Maori as an official language along with sign language. This is something Kell has mentioned in speeches before as “it tells you something about people in government—it shows an approach to inclusiveness and diversity.” He admits that it’s not perfect but through their systems and the government’s sincerity in making it happen, they’ve seen headway and are willing to share their experiences. Also active in promoting good governance, he shared that they’re active in supporting the Philippine government in its pursuit for better governance and providing e-governance services.
Kell also shared how New Zealand is working on reducing their emissions. Primarily an agricultural country, they started the Global Research Alliance years ago. The initiative encourages research and investment in reducing global emissions within the livestock sector. This is a project that also involves the Philippines and they’re also helping Filipino mango farmers improve their harvest and marketing.
There’s a lot more and Kell is determined do as much as he can before he concludes his tour of duty as ambassador in Manila, his favorite role so far. “At ambassador level, you have the opportunity to leverage your experience, skills, knowledge, and insights in ways that really matter,” he said. “And then of course, the fact that it is the Philippines. It’s a wonderful place to be able to leverage that influence as ambassador as it’s a relationship that matters greatly to New Zealand.”