The top post in the Niue Public Service, the Secretary of Government, is once more on the auction block, having failed to reach expectations the first time. It’s understood that there was only one serious contender at that time. While the role is demanding – more like grappling with an octopus according to a former SoG – there are senior public servants who are capable of taking on the challenge. So why the seeming reluctance? We can think of one or two reasons why.
For a start – and this would be perhaps the most important one – the Secretary of Government is expected to have the full confidence of the political head of the country. As such the SoG is expected to possess, amongst other things, qualities of almost biblical proportions: short of walking on water, the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the courage of David, the faith of Abraham, the insight of Daniel and a good understanding of the culture and the ways of Nukututaha. It is only one of two posts in the whole of the Niue Public Service where the Premier is permitted to have an input. The other is the Niue High Commissioner to New Zealand.
The requirement of having confidence in the SoG is by no means a one-way street, which brings us to the second important point. Government has been without its top public servant since 2017 when the then incumbent Richard Hipa’s term ended before time. Mr Hipa’s premature departure resulted in court action which was eventually settled out of court. Terms of that settlement remains confidential but insiders say that it cost the government a lot more than would be the case had the former SoG been permitted to end his contract. The point here is that the Secretary of Government must be comfortable in his or her own mind that he or she is working with competent leadership, from the beginning to the end, as it were.
With nigh on two years without a top Public Servant, is it possible that the post has become surplus to requirement?
When the role was created 45 years ago, at the beginning of self-government, the Premier was Robert Rex [later Sir Robert] the island’s first elected Premier and the first SoG was Terry Chapman. Some would say that the post was tailor-made for Chapman or to be more accurate, Chapman was tailor-made for the post. Terry possessed all the biblical qualities aforementioned but more than that he had been brought into the inner circle at a crucial time. Chapman had been plucked from the relative obscurity of the Community Development Office to the high-profiled Fale Fono. It was a bold move but as it happened, it was the right move. While Robert Rex was a very capable leader, he needed Chapman’s input to articulate the government’s policies both locally and for the benefactors in the Beehive. He became in effect the fifth member of cabinet, but without the right to vote; he didn’t need to.
With the Niue Public Service Commission based off-shore in Wellington, their man on the ground on Niue was of course the SoG. While the Commission was required by law to act independently – but not necessarily in a vacuum – the SoG was the middle ground where the twain could meet. With the Commission now island-based, the buffer zone has gone making it almost impossible, irresistible even, for politics not to enter the corridors of the Commission.
With the passing of Sir Robert and with the emergence of new leadership, the role of the SoG was allowed to become less clearly defined. The appointment of a ‘personal assistant’ [PA] for the Premier added to the uncertainty. While it is not unusual for the leader of a country to have a PA, what is different here is that the PAs were very senior public servants in their own right. Against that background the electorate was left to wonder and to speculate. While the current Premier Sir Toke Talagi has not appointed a PA similar to former Premiers, he has a propensity to appoint expat experts. Case in point is the recently departed, but not from this earth – Wayne Harris-Daw, who remains a confidant of the Premier. One of the island’s well known best kept secrets was that Wayne was often at odds with some of the local senior civil servants and senior politicians as well.
While there is still a useful role for the SoG, much depends on how that role is perceived by the Premier.
Postscript: The Secretary of Government is a statutory post that cannot be removed without a change to the Constitution.