Premier Toke Talagi: Niue Visionary or Villain?
In April this year, Toke Talagi will aim to win a third term as Premier when Niue goes to the polls.
And as the election draws near, his two terms so far reveal a man that some will describe as a visionary while to others, perhaps a villain.
Mr Talagi, like many other world leaders, is no stranger to controversy.
In his six years at the helm he has had to fight off two votes of ‘no-confidence’ against him. The second he defeated earlier this month while the first took place just six months into his first term in February 2009.
Although the 2014 no-confidence challenge was expected this close to the elections, it did come on the back of three controversial directives by his government.
The most recent of these initiatives was announced at the end of last year when he offered Niue to house some of Australia’s asylum seekers. That move has been shelved for now when the opposition successfully voted against it in parliament.
The second was the adoption of a four-day working week for public servants but paid their full week’s salary. It was Mr Talagi’s way of honouring a 20 per cent pay rise that was promised a year earlier.
And the third involved an alleged agreement with Auckland zoo to quarantine two elephants from Sri Lanka. A country with a well known case of foot and mouth disease, and one of the reasons why New Zealand authorities would not allow the animals to enter direct.
But even though there were people opposing Mr Talagi’s latest initiatives, there were equally as many who supported Mr Talagi and argued the latest challenges by the opposition are unfair especially when the reasons behind the motion lacked substance.
This is also taking into account initiatives by former Premiers to find new ways to earn an income for the country. These included at one time or another a tax haven centre, and its telephone system used as a hub for an international call girl network.
It highlights the call by Premier Talagi’s supporters that the reality for Niue is stark and simple.
It is a small speck of an island fighting for survival as a viable sovereign nation.
Those fears were slightly relieved when in October last year, the Governor General, Sir Jerry Mateparae reaffirmed New Zealand’s support of continued budgetary assistance and development assistance.
But Mr Talagi is aware Niue needs to take greater ownership of its economy to secure its future.
It needs to show New Zealand, and its international donors and partners it has ideas to generate its own income separate to the overseas help propping up the country’s finances.
And that has been Mr Talagi’s problem. He is in charge of a country on the brink of extinction. Its major problems are depopulation on the one side and an economy beset by difficulties on the other.
The lack of natural and people resources together with a bout of unfavourable climatic conditions in the past decade has left Mr Talagi with few options to build an export base.
There was a brief moment when a rich vein of potential business enterprise and investment surfaced. But those were quickly quashed by the global financial crises that saw its two major business partners and investors go belly up in 2012. Reef Shipping went into receivership; while Noni buyer, Chinese businessman Jack Chen was charged with bribery and money laundering by the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption.
To make matters worse is the unhelpful snails pace that some international aid agencies and their programs meander through so called ‘sustainable development projects’.
Some of these projects have been going on for more than a decade and are still in the ‘conducting research and writing reports’ on agricultural developments and small business incubation stages.
From some of the reports put out by these organisations over the years, there is little confidence that their projected ‘sustainable development’ outcomes will bear ‘self sustaining fruits’. So far, no reports of exportable products for Niue have come across this reporter’s desk, apart from promises documented in annual reports with little to no timelines.
The only visible ‘sustainable outcomes’ bearing fruit from these international-headed projects is a constant stream of consultants on their pay rolls.
It would be in Niue’s interest to investigate and publish a report about the effectiveness of these aid agency programs and their relevance to the development of Niue and its economic well being.
Money comes in, money goes out, very little is left in Niue.
It is perhaps the slowness of these projects that Mr Talagi, it seems, has taken on a one-man band approach to find ways for Niue to survive.
From the outside, that is the visionary and patriotic side of Mr Talagi his supporters are talking about.
It explains why he holds the majority of cabinet portfolios; and broad business interests in a wide range of sectors because if a Niuean doesn’t step up and take charge, history has shown that no one will.
But as the 2014 elections draw near, there is a new and brighter outlook.
There is confidence that if Mr Talagi wins a third term, there are others now in key positions to lend a helping hand.
We can list a few of these.
First there is Mr Colin Tukuitonga, a Niuean who now heads the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the largest intergovernmental agency in the Pacific region.
SPC’s core business includes areas such as water conservation, climate change, public health, education, and development. All are relevant to developing Niue’s natural and human resources to better implement and sustain an economic strategy.
Second, at the heart of the New Zealand government is Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga. He is now the Minister for Pacific Islands Affairs. He is willing and able to help Niue.
“We want Niue to tell us what their needs are. I am ready to put voice to those needs,” he told the Niue Star.
“Niue has a lot of friends in this government, and we want to work with them. And if they come to the table with a list of things then hey, that’s something we can work on to ensure we’re providing assistance directly to their areas of need.”
Third, both Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader, David Cunliffe agreed that ‘tourism’ is what they see as the best sector that will drive Niue’s economy. That is a given since the whole Pacific region is geared on tourism as the backbone of their economies.
However, another option off the tourism tree provided by New Zealand comes via a change in Superannuation portability criteria for its citizens. It is an aspect that can leverage marketing Niue as a ‘Retiree Destination’.
The potential benefits of such an initiative is the creation of industries and sectors that include construction, infrastructure and utilities improvements. On the back of those sectors comes a whole series of employment opportunities in trades, profession, service and hospitality and supply demands that not only employ locals but has the potential to attract overseas Niueans back to the island for work.
The tourism impacts are obvious, as an inflow of retirees means their children, grandchildren, friends and associates will most likely make Niue their favourite destination for trips and holidays.
These potential opportunities must be cause for excitement for Mr Talagi as he heads to the elections.
However, that will be tempered by the reality of challenges that currently needs to be faced and resolved.
Depopulation must be faced and overcome quickly.
The issue of asbestos must be resolved
Conservation and preservation of its water resources and biodiversity must be aggressively monitored, resolved and policed.
Develop concrete measures to protect its fisheries stock, and maximize licensing and fees for deep sea fishing vessels harvesting its waters.
A more aggressive approach when reviewing current international aid projects. To keep them tied to real outputs and non-moving deadlines for results.
At the end of the day, he is one man amongst only 1200 residents on Niue.
Mr Talagi needs to find the balance, to develop a strategic plan that takes advantage of economic possibilities with the resources he has, and make the best use of international assistance. And at the same time, solve the challenges that have been hanging around for years. Getting a good grip on those is a sure step forward.
Failure to do so will have his opponents labeling him with the ‘V word’ – villain, instead of visionary.