With the Premier Sir Toke Talagi on extended medical leave in New Zealand, the responsibility for steering the budget through the Assembly was left to the Acting Premier Billy Talagi.
In keeping with the procedures of the House, the Budget for 2017 has been the subject of close scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee, PAC, for the past four weeks.
But before the Assembly resumed the Budget debate, the Speaker Togiavalu Pihigia ruled that Member Terry Coe [common roll] was to be disciplined for walking out of the last sitting of the House without any explanation, just when the Assembly was about to discuss matters which Mr Coe had raised. The member’s right to speak was withdrawn. Following the lunch adjournment Mr Coe’s speaking rights was reinstated.
In tabling the report of the Public Accounts Committee the Chairman Dion Taufitu [Toi] confirmed that the House was about to bring down a deficit budget totalling $1.1 million. He also pointed to the fact that $2 million was owing to the government. PAC has urged those departments who are owed money to recover these as quickly and as efficiently as possible. PAC would like all departments to work to their budget allocation and to collect all revenues due to the government. A review of government accounts will be conducted by PAC in six months.
PAC had recommended one change to the budget and that is to increase the allocation for road maintenance from $100,000 to $300,000. According to the Assembly’s Standing Orders – rules by which the Assembly operates – any variation to the budget must be approved by the Minister of Finance. The Assembly has no power to change or alter the budget. The recommendation was finally withdrawn as it was not approved by the Minister – but not before the Assembly had acknowledged the worsening condition of the island’s roads.
Points of interest from the Budget Debate :-
* The Legislature is still under the Premier’s Department despite calls for the two to be separated.
* The bird shooting season will be enforced until 2020.
* The unofficial leader of the opposition Tauveve Jacobsen [common roll] asked if the room once occupied by Speaker, can be made available for the use of members and to be appropriately equipped. Could this be the beginning of the recognition of the Opposition? Speaker Pihigia said he was prepared to consider this but warned that the reason why he and his small staff vacated the room in the first was because it leaked (of water or of sensitive highly classified data? Paku).
* NZ has indicated its support for Taoga Niue’s new building [cultural centre and museum] by providing $3m. Government has estimated the facility will cost over $5 million.
* Village Councils are missing out on funding from government through failure to submit reports. (That’s harsh – were they informed of the consequence of not filing? Paku).
* PEC had recommended that where possible, normal commercial flights be used for patients travelling to New Zealand for treatment.
* Medivacs this year, using small business type jet aircraft has totalled five – two being for the Premier. (And the total cost? Paku)
* About 400 pupils are transported daily to the Niue High School and Niue Primary School.
* Work on the much anticipated crèche is about to start.
* Approximately 70% to 80% of the total government recurrent budget is absorbed by salaries and wages.
* Effects of tourism on traditions is now being felt in the community.
By 4:30pm it was all over – the government’s budget for 2017 was passed with only one member voting against it Terry Coe. Coe was following his usual practice of voting against the government in the final reading of the Budget; it’s a tradition that the island has come to expect from the member. The only time he has voted for the Budget was when he was in government. (It seems he is taking his role as the opposition way too seriously…. Paku).
Those who were expecting a fiery debate in the absence of the Premier would have been disappointed. This would have to be one of the most tame debates ever – that’s not to say that the government was not being pressed for answers. The two ministers present Billy Talagi and Dalton Tagelagi elected to answer questions without the usual sting in the tail. Perhaps sensing that the two were not holding anything back, the opposition eased off a little. Even the Speaker was allowing the debate to flow.
After the budget was passed and the Acting Premier gave his usual end-of-budget summary of thanking the House and public servants directly involved, the Speaker gave an opportunity for Mrs Jacobsen to have her say. The member for Alofi North Va’aiga Tukuitoga who is not averse to poking the speaker from time to time actually congratulated him for a well conducted debate.
Al l the government has to do now is to fix the roads.