31 Jul 2018

A fractured Tokelau seeks unity

12:31 pm on 31 July 2018

In late 2016, Tokelau made a rash bid for air services, buying up two helicopters under instruction of its Samoa-based government administration.

But, done without proper consultation of the villages back home, it was a move that cost Tokelau dearly.

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Photo: kunilanskap/123RF

Its leaders were intimidated by then-New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully's outrage - he called the spending "extravagances" - and even more so by the restrictions on capital spending and independent investigation that followed from Wellington.

Now Tokelau is saying "never again", in a sweeping constitutional reform that will rein in the administration and restore power to the villages.

For several years Tokelau's leaders have promised to relocate operations of the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau back to the atolls, after its move to Apia in the 1990s.

But public servants and the faipule, or leaders, remain more than 500km away from the three atolls where the Taupulega, or village councils reside. The Taupulega is the ultimate authority in Tokelau.

The independent inquiry commissioned by New Zealand following the helicopter purchases described this dynamic as a "disjoint" in Tokelau's governance.

So in November last year, the General Fono, or parliament of Tokelau, amended the constitution to put the Taupulega front and centre, documents show.

The Taupulega are to be informed of all government operations and decisions to avoid "surprises", and processes around village consultations will be improved.

Notably, the Ulu, or head of government, Afega Gaualofa was given a slap on the wrist, amid allegations he was making executive decisions without seeking approval.

French Polynesia's President Edouard Fritch (L), Ulu-o-Tokelau, Aliki Faipule Afega Gaualofa (R)

Afega Gaualofa Photo: Supplied

"The position of the Ulu is symbolic and does not have any specific authority. Responsibility for decision making for Tokelau rests with the Council," the General Fono said in November.

The parliamentary body is now mulling whether to exclude the Ulu from the Council to reduce the power of the position.

Up until now the Council has been made up of the three faipule, which rotate annually to elect an Ulu, and three members of the Taupulega.

It is unclear whether the Ulu would remain in the council in their capacity as faipule.

Mr Gaualofa has also requested assistance from the United Nations in fixing Tokelau's disjoint, prompting the appointment of local observers on the atolls.

The UN's representative to Tokelau, Simona Marinescu, said having "one voice" makes regional representation easier but undermines the power of the Taupulega.

"Strengthening the capacities of the Tapulega to be able to assume and perform their role properly - that's democracy," she said in an interview on Friday.

The Tokelauan community in and outside of Tokelau has been rocked by news of the helicopters and the firing of two public servants for their involvement in the purchases.

The pair, Heto Puka and Jovilisi Suveinakama, have been drumming up support for their legal action against the Council by appearing on Tokelauan radio programmes in New Zealand and Australia.

Observers say the case has divided the Taupulega of Fakaofo atoll, which will meet with Mr Puka this week after he was refused access to the July General Fono by Mr Gaualofa.

"The foundation of how Tokelau was built and handed down mai o tatou forefathers seems to have been broken," said Ken Kirifi on a community Facebook page.

"Tokelau leaders need to take the humble and wise approach and not allow people with greed and corrupt intentions in when looking after its people."

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