Tokelau votes to stay with NZ

17.02.06 7.10pm
By Angela Gregory


Tokelau thought long and hard but last night decided it could not cut the apron strings to New Zealand.

The isolated country of about 1500 people narrowly voted to remain a dependent territory of New Zealand.

It had the opportunity to shed its colonial status and become self-governing in free association with New Zealand but the time was not right.

Many Tokelauns told the Herald in the past few days they were worried their people lacked the skills to run their own affairs as a nation.

They also did not trust New Zealand's assurances they would continue to get financial help.

New Zealand presently supports Tokelau to the tune of about $9million a year and ongoing financial support would have been locked into a proposed treaty.

The news of the referendum outcome was presented to grim-faced New Zealand foreign affairs officials and the United Nations observers at Fakaofo, the southernmost of the atolls.

A two thirds majority vote of about 600 Tokelaun adults who had registered to vote was needed but fell short at 60 percent.

There were 349 votes in support of breaking free from New Zealand and 232 against.

About 30 more votes in support of the proposal would have been needed.

The leader of Tokelau, Pio Tuia, announced the decision, which would have disappointed him as he was keen for change.

There were only limited opportunities for Tokelau to develop, he said.

But putting on a brave face for the media he said he was happy because it was a decision of the people and he had to respect that.

Nevertheless he hoped that in the future Tokelau would again seek self-determination.

The Tokelau administrator, Neil Walter, said it was always going to be a challenge to get a two-thirds majority in favour of the referendum.

"People were understandably cautious about change despite our best efforts and the issues were quite complex.

"They might be confusing to the average lay person but officials did what they could to make it as straight forward as possible," he said.

Mr Walter said Tokelau had for many years been successfully running itself as a self-governing country and the change of status would have confirmed the status quo.

Mr Walter said the referendum was the result of many years of debate and consultation and he was disappointed a change did not achieve the necessary level of support.

The proposed constitution and treaty would have given Tokelau the best of both worlds and a more equal partnership with New Zealand, he said.

Mr Walter said there was nothing to stop Tokelau from re-considering a formal change of status in the future.

In the meantime Tokelau would remain on the United Nations list of 16 non-governing territories.

It would not be able to become a member of the Pacific Forum or the European Union's development assistance programme.

United Nations representative Robert Aisi said it was a fair result and the two thirds threshold was reasonable, given what was at stake.