Hon. Young Vivian - Premier

Having served as Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) from 1979 to 1982, Mititaiagimene Young Vivian was leader of the Niue People’s Action Party and Premier of Niue briefly in 1992/3 and then from May 2002, when he defeated Sani Lakitani, until 2008.

Hon. Vivian lives in Niue but was visiting family in New Zealand when he told Ian Johnstone that even when he was a schoolboy, Niueans were being drawn away from their homeland.


Mr Vivian: New Zealand was the heaven for us, bread etc… place everybody aspired to go to at that particular time…

Ian Johnstone: How was it when you went there as a little 11-year-old?

YV: Well, it was very difficult, particularly the institutions that we went to. I went to a Wanganui preparatory school called St George's and then I went to Wanganui Collegiate. At Wanganui Collegiate two of us Niuean boys had to cut hair to be able to get pocket money to go to the pictures…

IJ: Were you the only Niuean there?

YV: No, there were some from the Cook Islands, and I can recall David Toganivalu who became a minister in the Fiji government and also I used to look after Geoffrey Henry when he was in Wanganui. Geoffrey never forgot that.

IJ: Did you want to stay in New Zealand? Were you torn?

YV: I went back to Niue after my training at Ardmore Teachers Training College. No I wasn’t torn, I had a duty to go back to Niue. I felt that I had to go back to help my people.

IJ: I can imagine. Well done.

YV: I went teaching for nearly 10 years. Then I came back to New Zealand to Victoria University to go through a course in the teaching of English as a Second Language. It was the Colombo Plan group that I was with, people from Vietnam, Malaysia, people from Uganda. I learned about the decolonisation process in their countries and that made me think about Niue, that we should be decolonised, just like the countries in Asia and Africa. So I came back and not very long after I went into politics, in 1969.

IJ: When you got back to Niue, was anyone there thinking along the same lines or were you the kind of missionary bringing in this new word?

YV: No, people were talking about that. I think New Zealand had already sounded people out and also the people in the Cook Islands were hearing things. Also at that time some people who were expert in constitutional development, they came to Niue. For instance Dr Aikman from the University of the South Pacific, Jock McEwen [Secretary of Island Territories] came and briefed the people and explained to people about the decolonisation process. Then Quentin Baxter [Professor of Constitutional Law at Victoria University of Wellington] came and made a report and explained to us what it means.

Because I think New Zealand generally were genuine in trying to decolonise Niue. It was difficult to find a solution of how to decolonise Niue. In the end they had accepted it I went to the UN with Sir Robert to explain about the process of decolonisation of Niue and it was accepted by the Committee of Decolonisation, the committee of 24.

IJ: That was in 1973. Later Sir Robert recorded this reminiscence about the successful but demanding occasion -

"… the night before I had to address the UN people I couldn't go to sleep worrying about how I'm going to present myself in front of 130-odd countries. The next day, New York being so cold at the time, I don't know whether it was the cold that shook me a bit or the nerves, having to appear before so many people from all over the world, so I decided before we go in to have a good stiff whisky...
Anyway my turn came and I got up and delivered my speech there and before we went in, it was arranged that both Young Vivian and Terry Chapman would listen and if my voice was right, they would give a sign, sort of tap me on the back because I stood in front of them. I must admit that I swallowed hard before I start my speech. However I hadn't gone very long, a matter of a few words, before I got the signal that I was right and from then on it was like something had been injected into me that gave me more confidence, that I delivered my speech well and clear, and when I finally concluded the house was almost pulled down by the applause that everyone gave me. … It was a great moment, one of the greatest moments of my life." 

IJ: There were some countries in the Pacific which didn’t really want to become independent or self-governing. They felt more secure under a colonial protected kind of pattern. Was that true of some of the villages or not?

YV: Yes it was true in all of the villages. They don’t want the process of decolonisation. They wanted very much to have that relationship with New Zealand to be secured. That was the key to the whole of the experimentation on this constitutional development.

IJ: So you saw your job, did you, as to persuade them to have the courage?

YV: Yes… it was actually New Zealand who bent backwards to try and help the Niuean people to accept it. By including those two clauses and another clause making sure that it’s a legal obligation for New Zealand to financially and administratively assist Niue. That was put into law and in black and white.

IJ: So that was the lifeline that guarantees that you won’t be cast adrift.

YV: Yeah, that was the guarantee. The other guarantee was… that we’d always have access to New Zealand. The other one was that the public service commission must be in Wellington. So those are the things that we have to assure the people and put it in black and white that New Zealand will always help Niue financially and administratively. It’s a legal obligation.

And all of that had to be worked out between you and the various New Zealand experts who were coming and so on?


IJ: There was some suggestion or proposal that you and the Cook Islands could be all lumped together in the same constitutional arrangement. Was that something that was talked about?

YV: Yes it was talked about. But I think we learned some lessons from the Cook Islands arrangements. I think those were the things that we insisted on being in black and white - in other terms, to be legally established.

The key things that we wanted to have is the continuity of assistance from New Zealand and also free access to New Zealand at all times. That is and has been assured, that is also the problem these days because we are now leaving our little country because of those clauses.

IJ: I have the feeling that at that time the UN said ‘it is time for total independence, we don’t want any more colonial nonsense at all, we want the new nations to be completely free of their old colonial masters.’ Was Niue a separate case, was that how the UN looked at it?

YV: I felt that that was the way how the UN looked at it. That Niue would never be able to be economically viable and they’ll have to depend on New Zealand. I think New Zealand was able to communicate those things to the UN and we were able to back New Zealand and tell them that’s the right way to go.

I think New Zealand did a good job, and also they were able to sell us the constitutional package that we agreed on.

IJ: I’ve heard this from John Webb in the Cooks, he said he thought that New Zealand had devised something that many other countries might like to look at.

YV: Yeah it was certainly an excellent experiment.

IJ: Was there ever any suggestion that – now how do I phrase this – that Niue might be done away with and you would become part of Samoa or one of your bigger neighbours?

YV: We would never ever have accepted that, Ian.

IJ: It is interesting, it seems to me when we look across the Pacific, that you don’t hear any of the animosity towards the colonial masters that you hear from other parts of the world.

YV: Yeah, you don’t detail it out in the Pacific, but I think wanting to be decolonised is wanting to get away from those things that are unfortunately happening at that particular time. We do have some experiences of some people who are not possibly good quality people that should become resident commissioners.

IJ: How was your experience, as a colonial island, were you dealt fairly by the New Zealand administration? Was there any racism? Was there prejudice?

YV: I think in the case of this particular resident commissioner I felt that his approach in trying to achieve his goals was very unfortunate in many cases. It’s quite crude. Unacceptable.

IJ: Were you aware of the Palagi or Pakeha New Zealanders who were your administrators and teachers and so on having any racist attitudes vis-a-vis the Niuean people they worked with?

YV: Yes there were incidents, but there were not any marked deliberate racist attitude. Now and again you see a number of things happening but I think they were quite isolated. On the whole I think Niue was able to come through those things, except that particular incident.

IJ: That early resident commissioner?

YV: That's correct.

IJ: So can you describe for me now what happened about the constitutional arrangements, did you come to Wellington with Sir Robert and who else to arrange all that?

YV: I, with Sir Robert… came to New Zealand… In actual fact, Ian, I came out from New Zealand mixing with those other people, I really wanted full self-governing status, full independence for Niue.

IJ: Full independence even, you mean without those guarantees?

YV: Yeah, without those guarantees. I went to Parliament with that idea but then I toned my idea down because it wouldn’t have been accepted by the Niuean people.

IJ: That was a brave idea to have, Young, wasn’t it: that you could be totally self-sufficient?

YV: Yes I think the commitment is what I was after. I think full commitment is required in nation-building. Any half-way house is a compromise, there are consequences which we are having now. With full independence the total control is with us and there are many good people in the world as you know, New Zealand is a good country, they wouldn’t let us float like that. I think the commitment we will find a way out. I think it’s partly education, and the way how we handle economic development that things are not quite right. I think one of the key problems I guess is that we are very successful in educating our people.

IJ: To come here?

YV: To face the new world.

IJ: Yes but also, the men that you’re educating all come and work here.

YV: Yes. When you educate people, they want more, they want opportunities. They want the benefits. We will never be able to give any substantial benefits that New Zealand has.

IJ: Were you prepared at that time also to say, look we don’t even want right of entry, or automatic right of entry for Niueans into New Zealand?

YV: That goes with the whole of the concept of independence.

IJ: Yes. Woof - that was brave, well done. I mean it is obviously what one aims for but then as a political leader I suppose you have to find out what the people want and arrange that compromise.

YV: Yeah it’s what is possible, Ian.

IJ: Did you have any sticking points? Things that Wellington wanted to go one way, and Alofi wanted to go another?

YV: I can’t remember any time that we have difficulties in talking or disagreeing on any... the thing that we were happy about, Ian, is that they have accepted those courses, they have accepted that it is their legal obligation. And also the free access to New Zealand and also the Public Service Commission to be in Wellington.

IJ: So that gave you the guarantees that meant you could go back to your people with confidence.

YV: Yes, I don’t think New Zealand wanted those guarantees.

IJ: So you got them out of them, as it were?

YV: Well I think so.

IJ: What are your memories of that day of self-government when it was declared back home?

YV: Well, I felt that the people were over the moon. They were excited. They had hope and faith that things would happen in the future that their lives would change and they would be in control of their country. They will be able to make legislations for their country. And there will be in their dreams good housing, good water, electricity, good education, good health system. And then, they have achieved that. We have achieved those things through self-governing status. Now we have achieved that, we’re moving forward.

And people say that we have failed - we have not failed! Niue is littered with excellent projects, and we have achieved them. But other people say that we have failed. No we have not failed. It’s only because our people are leaving, and we don’t have the people to increase productivity. And that is the problem with us. Why? Because our people are better educated, and they see their degrees and diplomas as opportunities to have a better lifestyle elsewhere. So you can see what I mean.

IJ: Indeed I can. That very guarantee you’ve got is in fact inhibiting your growth now as a nation.

YV: Well, it’s inhibiting our growth, or telling us that it’s difficult for a small place to go the way we are going at the present moment with the market economy or the kind of economic development that we’re having at the present moment. And they believe that it will never achieve it. Maybe we need a different kind of education or different kind of mindset.

And I think what they’re doing now with the UN in terms of food security and self-sufficiency, is a better way to think much more deeply in how we can go forward. Because actually those things are about being able to survive and we know that in a little country we have to polish those skills, survival skills, in order to survive in the future. Because the only things we do have, we have the land and the sea. Those are the things we have to look after.

If we talk about tourism, Ian, there are many many things beyond our control. Tourism is a very very difficult industry as far as I’m concerned.

IJ: Yes, we’re all learning that I think right now. Figures dropping away as the economics bite.

YV: … And educated Niueans are now looking at themselves and saying ‘Well, am I going to be in this position for the next 10-20 years?’ Trying to build a country, trying to build a nation.

IJ: Yes, you’re in danger of being a place where young people get educated and older people return after their energetic lives in New Zealand.

YV: Well, the solution that’s been given by the foreign affairs committee is that we build Niue up as an old folks destination or homes for retirees. You can’t build a nation like that. You must have all ages of people. Young, old, and healthy.

IJ: How many are you at the moment, living on Niue?

YV: Well, the statistician is telling us that we’re only 1400 people.

IJ: And how many in New Zealand?

YV: There are about 25,000 people.

IJ: Yes, it makes its point doesn’t it?

YV: Yes.

IJ: Presumably once you became self-governing you were then going to have an election. Or was it just absolutely obvious that Robert Rex was going to be the premier and that was that?

YV: Yes, it was obvious that Sir Robert was the national premier of the country.

IJ: And what, in that first cabinet that he established, what part did you play?

YV: I was minister for economic development and minister for education, and also agriculture and tourism.

IJ: Ah, so you had in front of you in 1974, the very things you’ve just been talking about. How do we educate our people for life, how do we keep them here, how do we develop the resources that we’ve got. Woof. Were you overawed by that?

YV: Yes, I was overawed by that. But I was very confident that we were going to go ahead. And we would be very very successful in these areas. And we were! We were very successful at that particular time. There was no water reticulation, we had water reticulation. There was no power reticulation, there was no roading. The education system improved a great deal. More teachers were being trained. And more people were getting degrees. Doctors. And the sad part about it: most of those highly trained people are not in Niue. And New Zealand benefits from these highly trained people.

IJ: By that time, had party politics come into things?

YV: In actual fact, I brought party politics into Niue.

IJ: Oh, why?

YV: Well, I thought that it was part and parcel of the Westminster system. And I think it is the Westminster system that we adapted. And I think that might be able to help to stimulate people, to debate a bit more deeply on some of the issues concerning their lives

IJ: But, so what was the name of your party sir?

YV: The Niue peoples party. That's what it’s called. NPP.

IJ: Was Westminster the best way for Niue to go?

YV: Well, I find it very difficult to think about that, because I believed in democracy, and the Westminster system.

But I think throwing overboard some of our traditional way of making decisions was not looked at closely, or in any depth. The introduction of, for instance, village councils, when already the system of village councils was there. But one of the key problems was the administrators, the resident commissioners, against the resident missionaries. They were always arguing, and fighting about control of the people. And the missionaries were very very strong. And hence, the churches are still very strong in Niue. Much stronger than government. In actual fact they’re bringing more dollars, and they’re using the dollars better than the government is using.

IJ: Right now in the method of administration, do the village councils have any major part?

YV: Yes, they have a major role, in actual fact. They have taken the role of the deacons’ meeting and developing the villages. But most of the villages, they’re mostly deacons and church people, as you’ll find in the assembly, most of the people in the house are church people.

The other thing about that is the churches help build bridges with people in Australia and New Zealand. They come in groups to the island. And also they bring more money, and try to persuade these people to establish business or ventures in Niue. Through the churches. I was a lay preacher. And I have been a pastor now for over a year.

I’m still also a member of parliament. Because I believe that I still have a major role to play in the SMP. And also in the church. And I think I have in my own modest way, have helped with the government of Niue.

IJ: Any particular disappointments, first, about what happened in the 30-odd years since Independence?

YV: I am disappointed about myself, Ian. Because we are going through a dark period now, for quite some time, and whether I have contributed to it, or not, and also whether I’ve contributed to try and help with the population issue. That is the biggest problem that we are facing. In terms of achievement, I have no disappointments with that. Particularly in the areas I said; health and education.

But in terms of the real issue, that you cannot have a nation with very very few people, that is a disappointment. And that is the major question in the future. And this is what New Zealand is also struggling, Ian. Because they too are being frustrated about the assistance given to a country. But we have not wasted that money. There have been very very many successful stories coming out from Niue. It’s only that we are not able to keep our people in the little country. And what are we trying to do try and keep our language and our traditions. What for?

IJ: What about your grandchildren, Sir, where will they be, and what? Are they going to be on Niue? Living the life that you’ve...

YV: Most of my children are here. [In New Zealand]

And again, there’s a disappointment. I cannot persuade them to go back. They are NZers. They love NZ. There are opportunities galore. That’s a major problem that we have.

Rex meeting UN Mission Aug 1974
Members of the visiting UN Mission to observe Act of Self-Determination being greeted upon arrival at Alofi airport, 1974. Robert Rex is fourth from left.