18 Aug 2017

Controversial helicopter deal part of Tokelau capital spending spree

1:02 pm on 18 August 2017

An employment investigation, involving two senior Tokelau public servants, has revealed a controversial helicopter buy was part of a hasty capital spending spree by the New Zealand territory.

Tokelau surprised New Zealand late last year when it bought two helicopters which were part of plans to build airstrips on the remote atolls and had Polynesian Airlines as the proposed service operator.

New Zealand responded by imposing spending restrictions on Tokelau and former Administrator David Nicholson commissioned a review into the helicopter purchases.

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New Zealand authorities were shocked by Tokelau's helicopter purchase Photo: 123RF

The review prompted Tokelau's Commissioner Casimilo Perez to suspend Public Service General Manager Jovilisi Suveinakama and Finance Director Heto Puka after they were found to have bought the helicopters without authorisation, and launch a disciplinary investigation into their actions.

In written statements prepared for investigator Aleki Siliao and provided to RNZ Pacific by their lawyers, Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka denied any wrongdoing and have previously placed blame on the New Zealand government and members of Tokelau's leadership.

Mr Suveinakama said the investigation alleged that along with making unauthorised helicopter purchases, the pair also displayed "misconduct or serious misconduct" in buying a property in Apia, Samoa for a new government office.

Figures provided by Mr Suveinakama showed the almost $NZ3.3 million ($US2.4 million) spent on the helicopters, which are now being sold off, was part of a swathe of large purchases agreed to late last year by Tokelau's council.

Until recently, Tokelau relied largely on New Zealand funding for development projects but fishing revenue for 2016 reportedly totalled $NZ18.5 million ($US13.4 million), up from $NZ1.37 million ($US1 million) in 2010. A summary of a September meeting of Tokelau's council in Apia provided by Mr Suveinakama suggests that money is now being put to use.

The helicopters and the Apia property, which were solely funded by Tokelau, were only a small part of the $NZ13.8 million ($US10 million) allocated to development in the 2016/2017 budget.

Suspended public service manager Jovilisi Suveinakama

Suspended public service manager Jovilisi Suveinakama Photo: sprep

Also included was $NZ2 million ($US1.4 million) towards ship-to-shore infrastructure and $NZ4.1 million ($US3 million) towards a cable project totalling more than $NZ40 million ($US29 million), both jointly funded by New Zealand and Tokelau.

A central water scheme and airstrips had $NZ13.7 million ($US9.9 million) set aside for each, with assistance from New Zealand and a "development partner" but no allocated funding for the 2016/2017 year.

The September meeting record showed Tokelau's leadership expressed frustration at their history of talking rather than taking action.

"NZ are now surprised as to the things we can do... now they're jumping… they're holding our funding," said Tokelau's current Ulu, Siopili Perez.

"These opportunities are going to be missed...," he said.

"We've talked and talked with NZ. Even [Foreign Minister Murray McCully]. I have also conveyed that tokelau is going ahead," said the Ulu's predecessor Afega Gaualofa.

This pressure to fast-track funding for development projects was consistent with Mr Puka and Mr Suveinakama's statements to the investigation.

Mr Puka said Tokelau was pursuing a more independent development budget last year, with a focus on addressing "access issues", enabled by its fishing revenue boom.

"Not only were our leaders demanding results, they had become averse to [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's] tedious regime of endless discussions, commissioned reports and business cases."

A comment at the September meeting by the Faipule, or chief, of Atafu at the time Kuresa Nasau suggested funding for the projects, including the helicopters, was passed down by a chain of command: "Our staff must do what we ask them. New Zealand won't. Our staff should…. Do we then wait for another 20yrs? Regardless to differing opinion….. our staff must do what we instruct them to do ……"

Mr Suveinakama said at the September meeting the council "verbally instructed myself and senior officials, to urgently progress the capital items".

The Ulu of Tokelau, Siopili Perez, and his wife, Taase Perez, at their inauguration.

The Ulu of Tokelau, Siopili Perez, and his wife, Taase Perez, at their inauguration. Photo: Supplied

He said the council told him to "just do it". Less than two months later, Tokelau had bought both helicopters.

Despite the employment investigation still being underway, Mr Suveinakama said a briefing paper presented at the General Fono recommended his position as Public Service General Manager be reviewed, with the intention of replacing him with someone fluent in Tokelauan.

Mr Suveinakama, who is of Fijian descent, held the position since 2007 until his suspension in April.

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