High Commissioner With A Difference
NZ High Commissioner HE Ross Ardern and his wife Laurell will leave the island at the end of the month. Mr Ardern has the rare distinction of serving at two different times on Niue and in two different posts. His first posting was to serve as the island’s chief law enforcement officer the Niue Chief of Police. He returned later as the representative for New Zealand, the High Commissioner – incidentally the only diplomat to be based on the island, which would make him the Dean of Diplomatic Corp. We spoke to him at this office at Tapeu and asked him how he came to be the Chief of Police on Niue.
Ross Ardern I arrived in July 2005 – that was as a result of the Halavaka agreement between Niue and NZ. Helen Clarke [NZ PM] had indicated that the [post of] Chief of Police would be the first cab off the rank. I saw that on television news one evening watching it with my wife Laurell and I said to her I’m going to apply for that job when it comes up. It took months to appear on the horizon and when it did, I think my application was on top of a very large pile.
When I arrived here, I was really lucky in that I had Maria Togatule as my deputy. I had a fairly clean sheet of paper in terms of policing. Things hadn’t gone as Maria had intended them to go and so I had a clean sheet to be able to develop a Police department. I think what we got from that first four years were a few runs on the board and hopefully turned policing around a little bit.
Tala Niue: Were you able to tap into the resources on the mainland as it were?
Ross Ardern: Yes, but only through friends. When I arrived at the station it was fairly barren sort of a place, furniture was decrepit, there wasn’t much in terms of police process, there were no notebooks or pens or anything like that. So it was my former colleagues [at NZ Police] who actually came to the fore. Ultimately it was the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police Secretariat that gave me a lot of assistance.
Tala Niue: Highlights of your time as Chief of Police?
Ross Ardern: Leaving with confidence after four and bit years that the Niue Police could actually stand on their own feet. That gave me a sense of pride. The other was Niue making a contribution to RAMSI [Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands]. The [Niue] government had a say around the [regional] table but had no staff deployed. I felt we need to make a contribution, irrespective of size. The staff that went on that mission performed admirably; we used to get back really good reports about their performance.
When I was about to leave the Niue Police one of the senior staff took me aside and said to me: You know people use to love us because we did nothing; now, people respect us because we’re doing something.
Tala Niue: You had another job to go to after completing your term as Chief of Police.
Ross Ardern: Yes I did. On leaving Niue just over four and bit years, I was appointed NZ Police liaison officer for the South and South Western Pacific. That role was specifically designed to assist Pacific Police Commissioners in their liaison with the NZ Police. And so we would identify a number of projects from Police commissioners and try to deliver them with assistance from Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for funding. I wasn’t able to travel to Fiji for the first six months or so because of a few tensions then. That was where the role was originally based and that was how I ended up based in Samoa working from the [NZ] High Commission there.
Tala Niue: So that was your introduction to the world of diplomacy?
Ross Ardern: Yes and it was a great training ground. My office was based right next door to the High Commission.
Tala Niue: When you left this place you probably didn’t think that you’d be back on Niue in another role?
Ross Ardern: Absolutely no idea, in fact I can remember to this day, so vividly, when Jonathan King rang me in Samoa and asked if I’d be interested in the role as High Commissioner here on Niue. I thought he was winding me up to be honest, but I quickly added that I would be very happy to do that but of course I had to check with Laurell. I spoke to her about it that night and decided that we’d be crazy not to accept because our hearts always remained here on Niue; I think when we finally go home, our hearts will still be here.
Tala Niue: When you arrived to assume your new diplomatic role, your former role must have assisted somewhat?
Ross Ardern: It did. It felt like I hadn’t been away and so it was easy to slip into the position and to come to grips with the demands of the post and do it fairly quickly. The relationships formed in the four and something years in my previous position as Chief of Police were still there and still valuable to me. I hope that we’ve added value to the relationships in general over the last four years.
Tala Niue: Has the shared citizenship and shared values been of any assistance to the job?
Ross Ardern: It has been a great help. The arrangement between New Zealand and Niue under the Constitution is a good guiding document. Premier Talagi has indicated to us that he wants a more open relationship with New Zealand and I hope that that comes into fruition and that we have a clearer understanding of what each of the parties want. Niue wants to have a prosperous Niue, a Niue that stands on its own feet. NZ wants the same thing.
Tala Niue: What has been the highlight of your term?
Ross Ardern: There’s been many to be perfectly honest, but I want to start with being able to live here – not so much a highlight politically but being able to develop these [Residency] grounds to what it is now and be able to demonstrate that we love this place through our work on the grounds and the contribution we have been able to make to it. I’m looking forward to coming back in three or four years and having a wander around the grounds if the then High Commissioner will permit such a thing. We’ve planted a tremendous amount of native trees here and coconut trees. My personal pride is that I’ve actually grown my own bananas, which is not bad for a Palagi. I’ve had some valuable pointers from the staff here and also from Minister Pokotoa Sipeli although he sometimes looks at what I’ve planted and just shakes his head. But I’ve had some big bunch of bananas I can tell you that.
From a political perspective I think keeping the relationship alive, being able to have candid conversations with the government of Niue and neither party being offended by them – straight-up honest with each other. I hope that over the last four years that the relationship has strengthened and it’s not just about personalities, it’s about depth, it’s about two countries that lookout for each other and care about each other. I hope that that is something I have managed to achieve.
From a physical asset point of view, when I was the Chief of Police I’ve always wanted a rescue craft and finally I was able to work the magic here and massage the figures. I am pleased to say we have got that now and it’s in the water and being used.
Tala Niue: What would be your a wish, if you had one, for this little island?
Ross Ardern: That’s a tricky one. I would hope that at some point in the future that the animosity that so many have between each other over land issues would go away. I honestly believe that the land issues here add to some disquiet. I know that Niueans, more than anybody else in the world recognise that god is not making any more of this precious commodity. But I would hope that families and friends would be able to resolve the issues around land in a much more amicable way than they do. I see the ill-feelings it has caused as a consequence of family having differing views. Land is a commodity that god gave to all of us to use and if a family owns it then the family should share it with goodwill. If we can approach it in a caring light, recognising that land is a gift, then maybe things could be a little quieter on the island.
The other key thing for me is the education of our children. I would really love for parents to become more involved in the education of their children. I know some already are. Education of the youth of Niue is the key to the progress of Niue. If we can produce educated souls , they will make this country shine, they will make this country develop at a much faster rate, they will force people to want to come back and to use the intelligence that they have to good use so they can make this country grow.
And finally, I guess it is care for the environment. It’s a beautiful place that we . . .[I was going to say ‘we as Niueans’ – maybe I’ve been here too long!]. . . I think some in our community take it for granted so they don’t wake up each morning and say, wow. My wife Laurell and I, each morning as we look out across the lawn towards the sea . . . wow! We are really going to miss this place.
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Note from Niue Editor: I have particular reason for holding Ross in a special place that I reserve for friends, family and those with whom I have the utmost respect. In another time when I was managing a well-known establishment on the Island, I walked into a situation where I was presented with a mounting debt from non-paying guests; this was not your average coupla-hundred dollar debt, it was more coupla-hundred-thousand dollar debt and rising daily. The defaulting debtors was made up of a group who had visions of setting up their Utopia on the island and had proposed using the premises I was managing as their head-quarters. And they promised big bucks.
Any properly trained rocket scientist would have spotted this set-up as a con and a big one at that. When the word got out, the Minister of Finance and his chief advisor demanded that the group be kicked out immediately, if not sooner. Others joined in calling for the management to be removed. Notably, not one critic had offered a solution on how to collect what was owed. There were other commercial establishments who had become involved with the group and were owed several thousand dollars as well.
The principal sponsor for the group was based in Hong Kong so if there was to be a strategy, it was to keep the group here on the island where we can see them and hope that guy off-shore would realise that the only way to get his people off the island was to front up with cash. Those who were baying for my blood had one solution, kick the group out and deport them.
The only person who stepped forward and offered his practical help was the Chief of Police, Ross Ardern. Not only did he supported our strategy but he personally escorted one of the group on a special tour of the government’s guest house at Fonuakula, a prelude as it were, to what the group can expect in terms of accommodation if they didn’t settle their debt and leave the island. Shortly thereafter, the Head Honcho in Hongkers, after threatening Ross with all kinds of legal action, telephoned me with the news that if we care to check with our bankers and the bankers of the other establishments who were similarly owed, all outstanding accounts had been paid in full. And so it was.
A chartered passenger jet arrived the following day to take the group off the island. I can’t be absolutely certain, but I think I spotted the Chief Immigration Officer at the airport. It’s not every day that you see an Embraer 190 passenger jet arrive on the island just to up-lift four people. Big bucks indeed.