Gloomy Skies but a Promising Future
On a rainy afternoon at the Legislative Assembly building atTialekula, overlooking Alofi Bay, the people of Niuefekai gathered to celebrate 43 years of self-government and to hear from the leader where he is taking the island for the next 12 months. After a three months absence in New Zealand undergoing medical treatment, the island was relieved to see the Premier. His health and his ability to lead the country has been the subject of much discussion and debate.
In a departure from the usual practice Premier Sir Toke chose to emphasise his role and that former NZ Minister Murray McCully in fundamentally changing the way in which the annual assistance from New Zealand to the island was to be spent.
But first though he thanked the leaders of the past, Sir Robert Rex, Hon Young Vivian, Hon Frank Lui, Dr Enetama Lipitoa, Terry Chapman, past members of cabinet and the Assembly for their collective contribution of the development of Niue. It might have been unintentional but the Premier made no mention of his old Nemesis former premier Hon Sani Lakatani.
For reasons which were not clear to the large gathering, the Premier then embarked on a journey down memory lane, a journey that featured Murray McCully. He spoke of his concern when he became the Premier over the then existing policy of tied-aid. Not only was New Zealand providing funding to the island but NZ officials were also controlling the dispersal of those funds. He raised his initial concern with McCully but when this was getting nowhere Sir Toke turned to the Niue Constitution.
“I asked Mr McCully to show me the relevant article in the Constitution which says that New Zealand officials can dictate to us how New Zealand assistance was to be spent” he said. “I asked him to let us have the funds and allow us to decide how best to expend that assistance.”
According to Premier Talagi, if New Zealand did not agree to this change in policy he was prepared to forgo the assistance from Wellington and to look at another country or countries for help. He asked only that he be given time to allow him to do so.
According to the Premier it took some time and few more meetings before Murray McCully finally agreed to a change in policy for NZ assistance to Niue. Premier Talagi omitted to mention that it was possibly because of the undisciplined spending by past Niue administrations which led New Zealand officials to a policy of insisting that they have an input.
“As a result of my negotiations, New Zealand agreed to provide assistance to Niue amounting to $14 million each year for the next three years. Moreover they also agreed to provide $50 million for the development of our tourism industry.” Sir Toke did not elaborate the time period but that arrangement is possibly at an end. A considerable part of the tourism aid has gone into expanding the now state-owned Scenic Matavai Resort.
Political commentators on the island say that the Premier’s message may have been somewhat unusual but his purpose was clear. In no particular order of importance, he was saying thank you to his old friend Murray McCully who has retired from NZ politics. Second he was sending a message to the new Prime Minister Ardern via High Commissioner Ardern that the current formula for delivering aid to New Zealand’s citizens on Niue was working very well – please don’t change it…but if you can, bump it up a little more. Third and final part of his message was an extremely broad brush across the canvass, saying in effect, that overall, he has done for Niue what Premiers Lakatani, Lui and Vivian had failed to do. Maybe he is right – but at what cost?
Farewell from HE Ross Ardern
If the Premier’s address lacked details of where the country is heading for the foreseeable future, it was the NZ High Commissioner HE Ross Ardern who provided some of the details. The island has come to expect that when New Zealand’s representative on Niue speaks in public, he usually has something meaningful to say. His supposedly final address at the 43rd Constitution Celebrations was no exception. However with a date of departure set for early in 2018, a change in government in New Zealand may have a bearing on that.
Ross Ardern first set foot on Niue as the Chief of Police, a post he held for 4 years from 2005 to 2009. Following a stint as New Zealand Police liaison officer for the South and South West Pacific based at the NZ High Commission in Samoa, he returned to Niue as NZ High Commissioner in 2014.
In his address at the celebrations Mr Ardern said that he hoped that by serving both the Niue Government and the New Zealand government that he and his wife Laurel had made a difference to the lives of the people of Niue.
“New Zealand’s partnership with Niue remains strong and it remains multi-faceted”, he said. But in addition to the constitutional relationship Mr Ardern said that the ties are further strengthened by a large presence of Niueans in New Zealand and an increasing number of New Zealanders visiting Niue every year. He assured the gathering that New Zealand will continue to support Niue as a partner and to support the island’s goal to become prosperous.
In the past 12 months New Zealand in conjunction with Niue has made a number of significant investments in the areas of tourism, Information Technology, the wharf infrastructure, the Pacific Connectivity project and renewable energy. And of course there is the new rescue craft. None of this would have been possible, the High Commissioner said, if there wasn’t a strong and meaningful partnership in place.
In the absence of any specific reference from the Premier at these celebrations it was left to the outgoing High Commissioner to re-confirm that the key driver in the Niue economy is now tourism, although he conceded that not all were in support.
Ross Ardern touched on the hot issue of the moment – the Niue language and expressed his alarm raised by an Auckland academic that the language was in danger of disappearing in New Zealand. Less than 5% of the total Niue population in New Zealand speak the language fluently. This was not unexpected according to Mr Ardern since 80% of all Niueans living in New Zealand were born there. Recognising that the language could be in peril it is heartening that Niueans living in New Zealand are now doing something about it according to the High Commissioner.
“Your language is a significant part of your identity. It is also valuable in helping to connect with your traditions and customs. It is within your culture that you store your knowledge of your songs and dances, of the sea and the sky and land – all this is in your language”.
Mr Ardern ended his address with an impassioned plea for parents to play an active role in the education of their children. He gave his assurance that New Zealand will continue to target sector support in education. “Help your children create a vision of where they want to be in the world. Don’t crush their dreams; they are their dreams and need to be nurtured”, he said.
“As I close my comments for the final time in this environment, I wish you all the success in your lives in Niue that you so richly deserve. “