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  • Tokelau
  • Kelihiano Kalolo (bio)

Arguably the most important event in recent years for Tokelau's political development was the self-determination referendum that took place on 13 February 2006. Tokelau's 615 registered voters went to the polls to determine whether Tokelau would become self-governing in free association with New Zealand or continue as a non self-governing territory of New Zea­land. The two-thirds majority required for changing Tokelau's political status by voting "yes" was not achieved, and the status quo will continue, at least until another referendum is held. The February referendum had been envisaged as the final step in a series of interrelated and sequential events leading to a new self-determined political status for Tokelau. This report seeks to review the recent initiatives and events preceding the referendum and to interpret its outcome.

The question put to Tokelau by the first visiting United Nation mission back in 1976 was: Would Tokelau consider having its own government [End Page 256] like the rest of New Zealand's former colonies? The choices provided by the UN Committee of 24 were limited to three: independence, self-government in free association with an independent state, or integration with an independent state. Tokelau's answer was brief: No thanks. Underpinning this response were anxieties as expressed to subsequent UN visiting missions and New Zealand government officials: Tokelau needed a solid infrastructure before considering standing alone. Education, health, a quality public service, and Tokelau's mativa (poverty) were in the forefront of these concerns.

Following the 1967 UN Mission visit, New Zealand substantially expanded and upgraded the Tokelau public service in response to these concerns. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a booklet in Tokelauan and English (English title: Tokelau: Its System of Government and Administration), setting out how it saw Tokelau operating. The booklet contains two features of particular note: the front cover photograph of acarver fashioning a model double canoe, and a line drawing of a three-seated canoe on the final page. The latter canoe is used metaphorically to demonstrate how Tokelau is governed both nationally and locally. The canoe hull is labeled "Tokelau people." The three village-elected Faipule (leaders) collectively are represented by the steering paddle at the stern, and individually by the reinforcing struts that connect the three outrigger booms (the elders' councils) to the outrigger (the pan-Tokelau General Fono). The three village-elected Pulenuku (mayors) are equated with the three rowing paddles.

This line drawing from Wellington with the position at the stern paddle occupied by the collective Faipule was at odds with Tokelau ideas about how a canoe is run with he toeaina ke i te mulivaka (an elder positioned at the stern); the stern of the canoe is the place from which wisdom and knowledge emanates. The cultural position of Tokelau elders is displaced in the diagram and the image is indicative of the type of thinking that set the stage for ensuing social and political initiatives. Wellington and Tokelau were not talking about the same canoe, yet each has continued to articulate the canoe metaphor in their own ways.

In 1993, a Tokelau National Government came into being, with the three Faipule forming an executive council and assuming ministerial portfolios. Each year one of the Faipule in rotation is designated the Ulu o Tokelau (Head of Tokelau), and in this role represents Tokelau at regional and international meetings. The first Ulu o Tokelau addressed a UN Decolonization Seminar in Port Moresby (1993) with an address titled "From the Lagoon to the Dark Ocean." The metaphorical message was that Tokelau was preparing to leave the calm waters of the lagoon and to venture into the uncharted waters, as it embarked on a journey toward self-governing status. While two domains are explicit in the symbolic language used (the lagoon and dark ocean), a third domain is implied—the canoe preparing to leave the safe waters of the lagoon and venture into the unknown waters. This was a bold statement by the Ulu o Tokelau as head of the new national government, who was well aware that the three ­villages of Tokelau had continuously [End Page 257] told UN...


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pp. 256-262
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