First Address to the Nation.
In his first major address to the Legislative Assembly and the nation, Niue’s newly elected leader, Premier Hon Dalton Tagelagi, have made it clear he’s looking for unity. After a period of uncertainty in the last administration, the announcement has brought acclaim from supporters of the Premier and a cautious approval from the critics of the former Talagi government.
Departing from what has become the norm, it appears that Premier Tagelagi has shied away from at least two hallmarks of the former government – the cabinet caucus and the Member Assisting the Minister or Assistant Ministers.
Both of these have come under severe criticism both from elected members and the electorate, the former for stifling the village representatives and the latter because of legal doubt. The Premier’s preference now is to bring in two more ministers which will require a change in the Constitution. He also plans to review the 1974 Constitution to look at articles that are “deemed outdated with modern times”.
The former government’s blueprint for development, the Niue Development Plan will continue to apply but not before “reviewing particular activities and making careful changes to suit existing and emerging situations”. It appears therefore that there will be no radical departure from the current plan but some tuning, fine or otherwise, will be undertaken.
The plans by the former government to look at reopening the borders by August, has gone by the wayside…”We are still far away from reopening our borders.” But, said the Premier, once it is safe, the border will open for normal flights to resume between Niue and New Zealand.
The last few months of the former government was dogged by revelations that the audit of government accounts was in arrears by a many years. The accounting firm of Deloitte, brought in by the Talagi administration, will continue to assist Treasury in bringing the accounts up to date.
“I want to assure this Assembly of our collective resolve to complete outstanding audit reports to 30 June 2018, by 30 October 2020”.
In his address the Premier acknowledged that “we do have cash flow challenges”. What this means is that some of the government’s revenue streams are not bringing in the expected cash on time. He gave an assurance that the essential services will continue, including the payment of salaries and pensions. He warned though that the Budget for 2020 will contain austerity measures.
The Niue Public Service was singled out by the Premier for mention. The former government had introduced major changes to the structure of the Public Service by creating ministries and consolidating the government run businesses. “Government Ministries and departments will be scrutinized to exercise responsibility and astute leadership, to practice good governance, transparency and accountability”, said the Premier. The Niue Public Service Commission, the hiring and firing agency of government, can now expect clear guidelines from the government.
Meanwhile, the government has started the process of examining several areas including an evaluation of the transformation of the public sector. At the time of the transformation, many were unconvinced of its necessity, with a few claiming it to be no more than re-arranging the furniture.
There is also the promise of looking at salaries and allowances of public servants, an area that has caused much controversy in recent past with many claiming that there is no parity between the technical pay scale and that for administrative staff.
Student loans, superannuation and succession planning for an ageing workforce will also come under the microscope.
An area which has been woefully lacking in the past is that of readily available information on government activities. Premier Tagelagi is planning to rectify this by holding regular press conferences and in making available accurate information on government websites.
But internet users, be warned. “We will also look to regulate the standard and quality of public comments that are acceptable on social media and government web sites” the Premier said.
While the signs are promising for the Tagelagi administration, there are also signs of nervousness in the relationship with New Zealand, which is possibly why the Premier is asking Wellington to re-sign on the constitutional arrangement. With the New Zealand economy under pressure from the Covid 19 pandemic, the nervousness is understandable.
In all this, the question is, where is the Tagelagi led government taking the island in the foreseeable future? First, it’s clear that there is an attempt to move away from under the shadow cast by the Talagi administration. The planned evaluation of some of the recent changes in the public service is a good start as is the promise of cleaning up the backlog of unaudited accounts.
There is recognition that the engine that drives our small economy, the private sector, is in need of help as a result of the pandemic; but without fuel for the engine, the tourism industry – our motor is in idle mode. The promise is that our border with NZ will open as soon as it is safe to do so and not before.
And so for the time being don’t expect any spectacular developments for the first year, not until the maintenance crew have signed off on their make-over. It’s a good plan.