Strathpine, Brisbane, 17 Nov 2018. I have never been to any function attended by a Niuean Premier before, so I don’t know what to expect when I saw the notice on Facebook. While it’s a privilege to meet the leader of one’s country of birth, and some of the familiar faces from back home, I tend to find politics as interesting as staring at a blank wall.
A few days before this Q&A meeting, we heard that a Samoan delegation’s visit to Brisbane was disrupted by someone throwing an uncooked pig’s head at the visiting PM. Fortunately, it fell short of the target, but that news forced me to get my phone camera fully charged just in case.
A few days before the meeting, I found myself running through scenarios, in case the pig-head-throwers or their copycats, turns up again. I figured, either way, I will need some training so I played xbox cricket for several hours, in case I have to catch a pig’s head, aimed at the Premier.
The Premier was on his way back from the APEC meeting held in Port Moresby, PNG. Accompanying him was Hon Fisa Pihigia, Niue High Commissioner to NZ, Director of Transport, Sonja Talagi and Manager of Premier’s Office, Pats Sionetama.
Because of the flight delay, the function scheduled for 6:00 PM didn’t start until 8:00 PM. This is the only thing about Niuean events that I dislike – they are never on time. But to be fair, it wasn’t the delegation’s fault that the plane was delayed.
When they finally arrived, they were met at the door by the MC Joeseph Peauvale, Rev Sionetuato, Ikitama Tongamana, Mr & Mrs Roger Jackson and other community leaders. Gregory Jackson then performed a short Niuean warrior’s dance “takalo” to welcome the delegation which is part of our culture, for visiting dignitaries including presidents, prime ministers and governor generals. In the past, the takalo can be performed by both men and women but we’ll discuss that another time.
When the dignitaries were seated, Rev Togia Fakaotimanava Sionetuato then said his welcoming speech – “Fakaalofa lahi mahaki kehe lilifu he motu ko Niue kua fakalataha mai kehe afiafi, moe agaaga he fakauka hakua fakatali a tautolu kehe fenoga lilifu mai he kautu, fakalataha foki moe Komisina Tokoluga kehe motu ko Niu Silani, pihia moe tau Ofisa gahua tokoua ne kua leveki atu kia laua.”
“Koe tau Niue ni a nei ne kua mua atu e fiafia ke kitia e matua Palemia mai he motu. To lahi e fiafia he tau Niue in Queensland hakua fakalataha mai a koe mo mautolu. Twice this year we have had the privilege.”
“Brisbane is the fastest growing vibrant population of Niue people and the most youthful. It is by far the largest population of Niueans in Australia.”
Rev Sionetuato then talked about Psalm 133. He pointed to two things from the text. The first is, it is good for families and relatives to unite and live together in harmony. The second is that, God will bless such gathering quoting part of the verse that said “for there the God bestows his Blessings.” God initiated 2 forms of covenants, one for the church and the other for the government. These 2 must go out and find their people, the church too must go out and look for the Niuean people.”
“It is not by accident that you are here, we believe. Koe tau Niue ni a nei, ne kua mua atu e fiafia ke kitia ia koe”.
“Tonight should be a joyful occasion, there is no politics involved.” I thought to myself, how odd we are here to see politicians but we are not allowed to indulge in some politics? Maybe it was a mistake to attend…
As a sign of respect and acknowledgement of the traditional owners of this land, specifically, the indigenous Aboriginal people and people from Torres Strait, a Matua (elder) from the indigenous community stood up and said a welcome speech for the delegation.
The food was then blessed by Rev Elisi Sionetali, but before we ate, the Premier started addressing the crowd.
“Lahi e fiafia haaku hakua feleveia a tautolu. Koe Atua ke leveki mai a tautolu oti. Koe Atua ka tua a tautolu ki ai. Koe Atua ka leveki a tautolu tukulagi. Tatai ni e mahuiga he feleveia a tautolu moe feleveiaga haaku moe Pelesiteni ha Saina.”
The Premier added that he was very happy to be welcomed by the Indigenous representative. He has witnessed that custom in one of his past trips to Sydney.
He said “I have often advised the Pastors at home that they are responsible for the well being of our people’s minds (tau momoui agaaga) while the Government is responsible for the physical well being (levekiaga fakatino). While we have a good relationship with the church, I have never wanted, nor want to interfere with church matters. Thank you for coming to see us and for us to share. Whatever questions you may have, I will be happy to answer. I have never wanted to be a Premier, I only wanted to run my own business. The Premiership have taught me that I have a lot to help the country with. Our progress is hindered only by our willingness to change. Many people think that Niue is too small to which I disagree. The Niuean people here and at home is a huge resource that we can tap into.”
One of the highlights of the night was the presentations from NQR (Niue Queensland Rugby Union) boys to each of the delegate. The Premier was presented with a sports bag filled with their full uniform while Fisa, Sonja and Pats were also presented with a training top. Metric Ikitoelagi, their leader, also introduced the Committee – K Taleni, Togia Puhotau, Oz Taliu, Karl Jackson and Joe Peauvale as the Chaplain. He introduced two boxing boys who are training for the next South Pacific games (they are wearing blue tees in the picture).
After the meal, the MC opened the floor for anyone who have questions.
One of the attendees got up and asked for clarification about the involvement of the Chinese Government. He asked if it were true that Niue received $15m from China for the roads upgrade.
The Premier started off saying, “my job is to take Niue to the world. ”
“We also received money from India, from America (something to do with the use of Niue air space) and so forth. Niue have had a bilateral relation with China that went back some 10 yrs.”
The Premier also said “The Chinese wanted to build hotels, but I said no, I only want them to upgrade the roads”. This means that there was already some Chinese aid spent by Niue but there was no indication as to how much and whether Niue is expected to pay back that money.
The same person asked, if true that Niue have received money from China and given China’s heavy handed approach to a lot of countries who have defaulted on their loans, what assurances are there, that Niue will not be sold to Chinese interests for failure to repay. There has been a fair bit of concern expressed in social media, amongst many niuean people. How is the Premier going to protect our country Niue and the Niue people from similar serious consequences?
Premier said, “Niue have never loaned money from any country including China. Niue will never sell Niue land to anyone.”
In my subsequent catch up with the Premier, he confirmed to me that the money from the Chinese are grants and not soft loans. Therefore there is nothing for Niue to pay back.
Another member asked about the protection of her land on Niue. What would she need to do to ensure that their family land is not taken over by other people.
The Premier basically said that Niuean land is not owned by anyone but rather by the whole family so every family member does have some rights to the land. He has seen many cases where developments were stopped due to extended families disagreeing. He stressed the point that people need to be familiar with the land laws of Niue, before they made the costly trips home.
Elder Sakalia asked about the relevance of attending meetings such as the APEC one they just attended. Rev Sionetali also asked about the decision not to raise the NZ flag and the underlying reasons for doing so.
The last speaker, Robert Folau, asked about the possibility of sending a Government representative to Brisbane for the Constitution celebration next year. The Premier answered that they could not bring a rep from Niue, but Hon Pihigia will be happy to come over from Wellington as the Govt’s rep.
After the Q&A session, a group of Niuean young ladies then puts on a performance for everyone to enjoy before the string band belted out several Niuean classics.
After the meeting, Talaniue caught up with some of the attendees to get some feedback.
This is what they had to say.
I was waiting to see if Niue Ogo Motu in Auckland had a Q&A session but didn’t seem to have one. Poke ai kitia e au. If there wasn’t any then it poses the question, why did the Premier choose to stop over in Brisbane not only met but gave a rare opportunity for Niue people to ask him any questions under the sun regarding Niue and/or government-related matters.
I must say that Q&A was a privilege and was special for us here in Brissie. Normally, only in the Niue assembly and cabinet that the Premier answers these types of questions, but we know that is a different arena. So why did the premier stopped in Brissie for the faithful few niueans?
In my view I thought Brisbane was an easy pick non hostile crowd unlike Auckland. Having said that I was happy to have met the leader of our country, which was an opportunity that doesn’t come too often, shook his hand, asked a question and enjoy the occasion. Thanks to those who brokered the premier’s Brisbane stopover.
I thought the premier didn’t quite give a straight clear answer to my questions. I didn’t hear a yes or a no, or anything close to those two answers.
Before the delegation left, Niueans were given another opportunity to take their pictures with him. Judging by the reaction of many, this Premier is still loved by his people. It would not be unrealistic to think that he is likely to be voted back for the 5th term come next election.
Niue being a small place, the Premier is not a stranger to his people so you can understand the crowd warming up to him. But under his friendly self assured personality, I can tell that this is a veteran politician, a craftsman on top of his game, who will not be caught with his pants down. His health may not be the best but this is a man who will not give up his throne without a good fight.
I was somehow relieved that a pig’s head didn’t make an appearance as that would be embarrassing for our people, and potentially life threatening for the perpetrators.
Whoever will be running against Premier Talagi and his band of merry-men, in the next election, are reminded to make sure they bring their A-game.