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Atoll Politics

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In Our View

Atoll Politics

The government’s Budget for the current financial year has still to be debated and to be passed by the Niue Assembly, but already it is shaping up to be one of the most unusual since self-government in 1974. For a start, the minister of finance was indisposed so the Budget was introduced by Minister Billy G Talagi. This is virgin territory for the Niue Assembly and completely unchartered waters for Cabinet. The question for Cabinet was simple: how was the Budget going to be presented to the Niue Assembly in the absence of the Premier?

There were two options available to the Cabinet. The most obvious is for Minister Billy Talagi to make his presentation in accordance with the wishes of the Minister of Finance Sir Toke Talagi; this presuppose a well thought-out prepared statement outlining the administration’s plan of action for the final year of its current term in office.

The second option was for the Minister of Finance to give Cabinet a thorough briefing of the salient features of the Budget and leave it to the Ministers to agree on the approach to be taken.  Of the two options, this approach would have been the most challenging for it requires the utmost faith on the part of Premier Talagi that his cabinet colleagues would deliver his budget in a manner that would provide the electorate with the assurance that the island is heading in the right direction.

We now know that option one was the approach taken by the Premier. Whether the second option was even considered is doubtful. By all accounts it would have meant a quantum leap of faith for our leader, which, with an eye for the future, does not augur well for any pretender to the throne.

Main street of the capital city, Alofi – pic Talaniue.

Still there was enough information presented by Minister Billy Talagi for the electorate to mull over. For example the reference to the tax evaders was a sure bet that the Minister of Finance will be looking at some kind of tax review. For the public servants the message was clear: stop damaging government property, collect what is due to the government. . .and maybe you will get a pay increase.

The reaction from opposition members was not unexpected and somewhat predictable; it ranged from being the worst budget statement ever, to no clear direction of where the island is going, to a call for the Minister of Finance to resign.

But even with the most creative accounting yet to be invented, there was no way that anyone can come up with the claim that government was bringing down a budget with an $8 million deficit. So where did that figure come from?

The National Broadcaster and the $8 Million blunder

Following the introduction of the Budget in the Assembly the national broadcaster reported that the government was bringing down an $8 million deficit budget for the current financial year. This came as a complete surprise since no mention of this was made in the Assembly.  What was even more astounding was the figure quoted – $8 million. Past governments have been known to bring in deficit budgets but the numbers were in the lower end of six-figures.  $8 million was way beyond anything that the island has experienced thus far. How was this possible? Has the Minister of Finance and his financial advisors lost their fua mapu? Has Cabinet found some way of making up that huge deficit during the year?

It was of course a mistake, but a mistake with notable collateral damage. The fall-out as a result of the error could have been contained locally but for the fact that the story was also posted in the free-for-all alligator-pit that is ‘social media’. When the mistake was discovered BCN lost no time in deleting the post but it failed to provide an explanation, let alone offer an apology. This added even more fuel to the conspiracy theory that the government is hiding something.

News reporters can sometimes get it wrong – fortunately this is a very rare occurrence on the island. In this instance, if the BCN news team is to retain its hitherto impeccable credentials, it must step up and take responsibility…and while at it do some serious sub-editing.

The Speaker and the Outspoken Member

The ongoing stoush between Speaker Togia Pihigia and Member Terry Coe is heading for the Courts, or is it?

The background is this: Member Coe says the Speaker is stifling debate in the Assembly by not accepting some of his questions and motions.  Speaker Pihigia has made it no secret that he thinks Member Coe, has over-stepped the mark. The two have often clashed in the past.

In the last session, the Speaker had raised with the House the question of whether Member Coe should face disciplinary action for bringing into the Chambers an allegedly prohibited substance, thereby tarnishing the image of the Niue Assembly. Following a brief discussion, it was agreed by members not to take the matter further. In any case the substance in question – allegedly a packet of marijuana – had gone up in smoke. The cleaning staff had confined the packet to the incinerator.

And so what of the court action? In short – and this could be an over-simplification – the Court has no jurisdiction over how the Speaker choose to conduct the business of Parliament, unless the Speaker’s action is deemed to be unlawful. Parliament or the Assembly must be able to conduct its business in the interest of all citizens without fear of prosecution. Inherent in the role of the Speaker is the understanding that every member of the House is afforded an equal opportunity to represent  and to speak for and on behalf of his or her constituency.

In a nutshell, Talaniue has no idea how the Courts will handle Hon Terry Coe’s application!

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