3 Jul 2017

Documents reveal NZ-Tokelau rift over helicopters

9:34 am on 3 July 2017

Comments by Tokelau's new leader, in March, exposed an unprecedented breakdown of ties between New Zealand and its sole territory.

The Ulu of Tokelau, Siopili Perez, and his wife, Taase Perez, at their inauguration.

The Ulu of Tokelau, Siopili Perez and his wife, Taase Perez, at their inauguration. Photo: SUPPLIED / Tokelau government

The newly-inaugurated Ulu, Siopili Perez, used his speech at the opening of Tokelau's ninth General Fono to ask New Zealand's administrator to Tokelau, David Nicholson: "On what ground has the Taupulega (Council of Elders) done wrong to deserve this interim veto arrangement?"

He was referring to Mr Nicholson's decision to impose veto powers from his office on any capital spending by Tokelau over US$366,000, following the territory's controversial purchase of two helicopters.

"Whether this is an interim veto or a re-devolvement of all powers of the administrator that were delegated to the Taupulega, I see this as a great step backwards in Tokelau's constitutional development history," Mr Perez said.

While the Ulu's strongly worded statement appeared to be largely without context at the time, documents obtained under the Official Information Act reveal a collapse in New Zealand's confidence in the territory it has administered since 1926.

Tokelau reportedly spent millions on the helicopters, which were part of an interim air service, with the end goal being to establish runways on the atolls to facilitate regular plane flights from Samoa.

Despite these plans, however, a February summary of the purchases prepared by Minstry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials said Tokelau's leadership often made "important budget decisions on the basis of limited information" and that analysis of recurrent expenditure was "rarely provided".

An update on the situation later that month prepared by an MFAT official found there was no formal approval of the helicopter purchases.

"Our view is that this is a significant failure of governance on the part of Tokelau both in respect of a lack of judgement, the poor exercise of fiscal controls, and weak governmental processes for decision making," it said.

NZ cracks down on Tokelau spending

Although Mr Nicholson's decision to clamp down on big capital spending had been reported, the update composed by MFAT officials revealed Tokelau's capital funds are now released monthly, rather than in annual tranches as they were previously.

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Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Both these restrictions cover the use of both New Zealand aid funds and fisheries revenue that Tokelau has earned independently.

MFAT officials also advised that New Zealand had been asked to hold those responsible for the helicopter purchases to account.

Following this request, Mr Nicholson set out the terms of reference for a review of Tokelau's governance and capital spending and gave the contract for carrying this out to New Zealand consultancy company Martin Jenkins.

A summary of this review, obtained earlier by Asia Pacific Report, found the Tokelau Public Service Commission, operating out of Apia, "did not have the authority" to purchase the helicopters and did so without consulting Tokelau's government and Mr Nicholson.

Ulu Sipoili Perez later told RNZ Pacific that two senior public servants from Tokelau's government had been stood down.

Although Tokelau officials have refused to identify the two individuals due to an ongoing investigation, the acting general manager of Tokelau's Apia office told RNZ Pacific he assumed the role in April, taking over from Joe Suveinakama, who had been in the role since 2007.

Lawyers representing Mr Suveinakama declined to comment.

McCully angered by helicopter buy

The then-foreign minister, Murray McCully, appeared to have been just as critical of Tokelau's governance processes and raised concerns over New Zealand's taxpayer contributions to the territory.

In a February letter to David Nicholson, Mr McCully said he found it "astonishing that the helicopters were purchased without a business case, and before any work was done to determine whether or not they could even operate safely and legally."

He also said the helicopter purchases contradicted the commitments made with the purchase of the US$9 million purpose-built Mataliki ferry, which was completed in February last year.

An email chain between MFAT officials reveal that in meetings between Mr McCully and Tokelau's leadership in 2015 and 2016, Tokelau "was asked to make a decision between a ship or air services" and opted for the Mataliki ship. This was expected to meet Tokelau's transport requirements until 2036.

Despite assurances that no New Zealand aid money was used to buy the helicopters, Mr McCully said an air service undermined "the value of what New Zealand taxpayers have provided."

He also conveyed to Mr Nicholson his expectation that "as much of the costs incurred as possible" from the helicopters would be recovered.

Ulu Siopili Perez confirmed to RNZ Pacific that the helicopters were being sold off and documents obtained earlier this month by Asia Pacific Report reveal Auckland-based aviation provider Hawker Pacific approached Mr Nicholson with the intention of acting as a sales agent.


October 2015: The General Fono agreed to establish a fully commercialised air service by the end of 2020.

March 2016: The General Fono noted that discussions on air services as part of Tokelau's Long Term Strategic Plan were underway.

December 15, 2016: David Nicholson is advised that two helicopters have been purchased by Tokelau.

December 18, 2016: Tokelau's Council for Ongoing Government held an urgent meeting to discuss the purchases and agree to put any further expenditure on the helicopters on hold.

January 13, 2017: A meeting on the helicopters is convened between Tokelau Government representatives, David Nicholson, the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, the Ministry of Transport and MFAT.

February 12, 2017: David Nicholson departs Apia for Tokelau for week-long discussions with the Taupulega of Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu on Tokelau's governance and capital spending.

March 6, 2017: Ulu o Tokelau Siopili Perez uses his inauguration speech in Nukunonu to call out David Nicholson for the restrictions he placed on Tokelau's capital spending.

March 21, 2017: Mr Perez confirms efforts are underway to sell off the helicopters'

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