Those who tuned in to the local radio to listen at 9am on Wednesday to the final debate on the government’s budget 2018-2019 would have had the rare treat of listening to Toni Harris-Daw and her daily dosage of Hollywood gossip and Horoscopes.
In between the usual Kardarshians, the Aries, the Taurus et al, Mrs Harris-Daw did manage to put down her Tarrot Cards long enough to advise listeners that there was a problem linking the Fale Fono to the studio. As it turned out, when the link was finally established one and half hours later, Mrs Harris-Daw and her horoscope was probably the better listening option for the morning.
The much anticipated Budget Debate coughed, spluttered and fizzled into the history books as one of the most uninformative Assembly sessions we’ve had in a long time.
Those in the electorate who wanted to know a little more than just totals and sub-totals probably gave up after waiting for over an hour.
The debate though had its moments at least for the time that the electorate could hear; when the Member for Alofi North questioned why the COE of Niue Tourism was not present when the Public Accounts Committee was in session, the answer was that she was busy promoting the island in New Zealand. This was the opening that the opposition was waiting for if it was hoping to question the government on its policy of appointing an off-shore based CEO.
Ekepule Va’aiga Tukuitoga managed to sneak in her plea to “give the job to a local” before the Speaker shut the debate down on the grounds that government appointments cannot be made the subject of a parliamentary debate.
The unofficial leader of the unofficial opposition Mrs Tauveve Jacobsen questioned the current practice of tabling the operating budget of some of the State Owned Enterprises but without giving the House an opportunity to debate. It has been a point of contention with some members, even with some supporting the government, that the State Owned Enterprises and its CEO Mr Wayne Harris-Daw is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Ekepule Terry Coe resigned from the Public Accounts Committee for that reason. In reply the Minister of Finance Sir Toke Talagi told the Assembly that these enterprises operate as businesses and as such, there are commercially sensitive information that could jeopardise their operation if these were to be made public.
The whole debate barely took up the whole of morning session before the budget was passed – probably something of a record for the Niue Assembly. The Niue Government Budget for 18-19 is $26 million.
One of the lighter moments of the afternoon session was when the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee gave a spirited but totally incomprehensible report – in the vernacular – of why there has been no report from the Auditors since 2014. Stunned silence from the House.
The most revealing and informative part of the session was when the Premier was gave a short account of his recent visit to New Zealand to meet with the Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters. New Zealand has agreed to a single payment of $7.5m budgetary support for the financial year rather than a piece-meal approach of a quarterly payment. A total of $17m has been earmarked to meet the cost of a marine cable $7m, solar energy for $5m – that work is already underway and $5m for the re-sealing of the airport runway.
Premier Talagi then went on to tell members that he had written to the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Hon Julie Bishop telling her that after four years Niue is still waiting for the promised $4m waste-treatment plant. In effect, either put up or….
Continuing in the same vein, Premier Talagi said he had spoken to the Chinese about the proposed up-grading and re-sealing of the island’s roads at the end of the year. He said that he told the Chinese Ambassador of his disappointment in finding out that only 43 kilometres will be sealed after telling the people that all the main roads will be sealed. It appears that the Chinese are sticking to their original intention but they gave the Premier $20,000 to spend at his discretion, some was used to fund his visit to Hon Peters, some was given to the Village of Alofi South for their Show Day – they hosted the Chinese Ambassador – and some was used for a Fono with the senior students of Niue High School.
Finally after thanking members for supporting the government’s budget, he apologised to the old-age pensioners that he will not be able to keep his promise to increase their pensions this financial year but maybe next year.