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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 239-246

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Polynesia in Review: Issues and Events, 1 July 1999 to 30 June 2000

Serious threats to Premier Sani Lakatani's political and personal health occurred during his first eighteen months in office. In August 1999 he was hospitalized in Auckland and subsequently underwent a double bypass heart operation. Lakatani's health problems may have been complicated by stress over his plans to introduce a new air service, which was to have been known as Coral Air. While Lakatani survived his hospital ordeal, the Coral Air venture was not so fortunate.

The purpose of the arrangement with Coral Air was to generate additional tourist revenue for Niue, as the island is virtually tourist-free most of the time, and the larger share of its accommodation properties are usually empty. The Coral Air project was criticized by an independent group of [End Page 239] consultants hired to evaluate the project by the New Zealand government, which then proved unwilling to assist Niue with financial support for the scheme. The airline was to have had several aircraft and a staff of eleven pilots and copilots. With the entire financial risk guaranteed by the Niue government, the plan for the airline was described by the consultants as "imprudent and reckless." Ultimately both the Niue government and Coral Air accused one another of failing to meet contractual commitments, and the entire matter has been placed before the courts. It seems unlikely that any arrangement with Coral Air will contribute to the rejuvenation of Niue's tourist industry, which seems to thrive only when South Pacific regional conferences happen to be held on the island. Indeed, the best that the Niue government can now hope for from its involvement with Coral Air is that the airline's threat to sue for $20 million--more or less the island's total annual budget--as compensation for an alleged breach of agreement and for lost business revenue will also fail to get off the ground.

Some members of the Niue Assembly were doubtful from the outset about the government's plans for Coral Air. Their concerns began with the payment of a loan from the government to the airline. As a result, in late 1999, with the premier still recuperating in an Auckland hospital, a group of assembly members, including an associate minister, began maneuvering to replace him.

When it took office in early 1999, the Niue People's Party (NPP) held a majority of 14 to 6 in the Assembly through support from a group of independents. By December, however, it seemed as though the government--the island's first political party administration--would also be Niue's first to lose office on an assembly motion of no confidence.

The initial source of discontent with Lakatani appears to have been the commitment to Coral Air. Prior to the vote, Lakatani indicated somewhat ironically that he would call a new election rather than govern with a 10-10 "hung Parliament"--the result that the party itself had inflicted on Lakatani's predecessor, Frank Lui, prior to the 1996 election. In the event, however, the no-confidence vote, taken on 17 December 1999, found the Niue People's Party deserted by the independents who had originally given it their support, and the result was precisely the 10-10 outcome against which Lakatani had warned.

The vote itself proved somewhat chaotic, with some confusion about the voting procedure and a decision by elected NPP Speaker Tama Posimani forbidding debate, leaving the grounds for the no-confidence motion at least formally undisclosed. Following the vote, not only was there no prime ministerial resignation, but a statement was made looking toward a number of major projects, including a NZ$50 million golf resort and construction of a series of wind generators for electricity supply.

Afterward, independent assembly members unsuccessfully filed for a judicial review of the assembly procedure for the vote. This was followed by a walkout of eleven members, preventing further assembly business from being undertaken. The numbers demonstrated that a majority of members was now in opposition to...