OPINION: The question of Tokelau, post 2023 General Election. An explainer by Aleki Silao
The voters, fewer than 1000, selected the 11th Parliament (General Fono of Tokelau) on January 26, 2023 during the general election.
Twenty members, a mixture of experienced elders, new young blood, and including three women, have an important role over the next three years - to steer the territory to new waters, so to speak.
A paper was tabled last year in the General Fono for the three atolls, 500km north of Samoa, to consider an act of self-determination, a process through which a decision is made regarding its political status.
There are plans to mark 100 years of colonial supervision by deciding its future by 2025/26.
Tokelau held two referendums for it to become self-governing in free association in 2006 and 2007 respectively; in both, Tokelauans voted narrowly to stick with the status quo.
Currently, New Zealand is the administering state which is responsible, in the eyes of the United Nations (UN), for developing the territory to the extent its people can decide a suitable political status for itself.
New Zealand is required to report annually to the UN as to how it has developed the territory.
The standard options are: independence, integration and self-government in free association.
Notwithstanding the natural desires of colonised countries/islands to govern themselves, the world wars also contributed to the decolonisation movement.
The territories provided support to the administering states by sending their people as soldiers.
Some returned with new ideas, became political leaders and aspired more to govern themselves.
There was strong support from the UN. Large mineral-rich territories, especially in Africa, sought and gained independence e.g. South Africa (1910), and Kenya (1963). In the Pacific, Samoa became independent in 1962 and Fiji in 1970.
Chatham Islands became integrated into New Zealand in 1922 to address previous concerns raised by the residents as to why they were paying taxes. Through the integrated status, Chatham Islands received a full measure of mainland policies and regulations.
New Zealand came up with a novel option - self-government in free association - suitable for relatively smaller and resource poor territories.
Cook Islands and Niue chose self-government in free association with Aotearoa in 1965 and 1974 respectively. It is a kind of friendly agreement through which the smaller country, in size and economy, is assisted by an independent state.
Thus for Tokelau, the 2025/2026 proposed event has three key interested participants: New Zealand, the Administering State; Tokelau, the Territory; and the United Nations Decolonisation Committee (UN), a kind of neutral referee with an interest in the outcome of the process.
In the next three years, New Zealand may ask: "Have I discharged my responsibility to develop self-government for the Tokelau, as required by the UN? If not, what and how can those be done?"
Tokelau may ask: "Where are we? Have we managed to integrate key parts of the westminster model with our traditional system which has provided us with stability, peace and harmony in modern times? How suitable to our society these ideas from afar? Have we the public servants with skills to support any of these options? What risks are beyond our capabilities and how do we mitigate against them? What about our people in Australia and New Zealand? Seek their views? Can we modify any of these options to make modernity and traditions/our way of life/culture fit better? If not, how can we address these in the next three years?"
The UN, on the other hand, is an observer and neutral referee but has an interest in the outcome.
Finally, Tokelau should note political developments in Wellington and engage.
Aleki Silao is a Tokelauan/New Zealander. He has a Masters in Public Policy, is a former Principal and former Senior Policy Advisor to the Administrator of Tokelau among many other roles. He says his remaining goal in life is to help his small country.