The Honourable Toke Tufukia Talagi MP, Prime Minister of Niue, formally opened the 39th Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders on Tuesday. Talagi takes on the chair of the forum for the next four years taking over from Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele. The Niuean PM named climate change as the most pressing concern for the forum. “The challenges for the region is no longer a matter for research or scientific theory and modelling,” he said. “The evidence is quite clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc here.”
Talagi was referring to 2004’s Cyclone Heta which devastated the capital Alofi. Although one person died, he said if that cyclone had struck one of the lower-lying islands in the Pacific, “a human disaster might surely have eventuated”. Talagi said the PIF shouldn't wait until a worse human catastrophe occurs before acting. He said the current international attention on climate change presents an opportunity for the region “to negotiate and secure tangible assistance for people already affected by climate change."
15 of the PIFs heads of government attended the summit. Fijian dictator Frank Bainimarama was the odd man out. He announced two days ago he was boycotting the forum to concentrate on “political issues at home”. The PIF expressed concern at Fiji’s absence and condemned Bainimarama’s recent statement delaying free elections beyond 2010. Australian PM and regional Big Brother Kevin Rudd believes Bainimarama has made a “grave error” by not attending. “If there is a mood across this Pacific Island Forum,” he said, “it's that Bainimarama has gone not just one step too far but many steps to far.
The forum is a rare moment in the spotlight for the small coral island 2,400 km north-east of New Zealand and 350km west of Tonga. Niue (pronounced “neeooway,” with a strong accent on the “way.”) means “behold the coconut”. It has a population of just over 1,000 which has been in decline for over 40 years. Polynesians lived on the island for many centuries before Captain Cook sailed by in 1774 denoting it “Savage Island” for its unfriendly welcome. British missionaries first arrived in the 1830s and in 1887 King Fata-a-iki bowed to the inevitable and ceded control of the island to London.
New Zealand then gained the island as a reward for its contribution to the Boer War. Since 1974 Niue has been independent "in free association" with Wellington. This means it has its own government but New Zealand is responsible for its foreign affairs. All Niuean are entitled to NZ citizenship and the “country” is reliant on NZ aid to survive. The PIF was a first hand opportunity for NZ prime minister Helen Clark to see how Niue is using a $20 million aid package to help the island recover from the 2004 cyclone.
Such oversight is necessary as Niue has a shady reputation for finance appropriation. In 2000 the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) named the island as one of 35 tax havens three days after the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed Niue on a money laundering blacklist. In 2002, FATF took Niue off the blacklist after the administration made “significant progress made by the jurisdiction in improving its anti-money laundering systems”.
But the continued financial due diligence may be beyond the diminished resources of this tiny island. The island's isolation and lack of industry makes it heavily dependent on New Zealand aid. The official population of 1,400 may go down further if the island holds firm on its promise to become the world’s first smoke-free jurisdiction. The island’s 250 smokers are likely to join the 20,000 Niueans already in New Zealand. With so little human capital left, Niue relies on the generosity of Wellington to survive.
Hope for future success depends on the new economy and Niue’s top level domain name “.nu”. Just as Tuvalu cashed in on its media friendly “.tv” name, Niue is relying on the fact that “nu” means “now” in Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. The island receives just 25 percent of the profits from its domain registry. But even there, Niue claims it has been cheated out of the .nu revenues by an American carpetbagger with whom they shared the rights. Talagi’s predecessor as Premier, Young Vivian, complained bitterly about the deal. "The key issue is that reasonable benefits should come to Niue," he says. "That is the goal of any leader."