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'Politically irresponsible': Niue's first female MP on proposed constitutional changes

Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific Journalist

There are concerns Niue's constitutional changes could be perceived as it wanting to loosen ties with Aotearoa New Zealand.

Niue's first female MP, O'love Jacobsen, who voiced the concerns, has also called part of the proposal "politically irresponsible".

A public consultation period is underway ahead of a third and final vote.

The proposals under the amendment bills include increasing the number of members of Cabinet from four to six, and expanding the term of the Assembly from three to four years.

Another planned change is the name of the role of "premier" to "prime minister".

"It's a cosmetic change by nature," she said.

"It kind of makes the title look good for the 50th celebrations. Well that's what comes across like."

In a government statement, the change was explained like this: "The Premier has previously been a title used for Crown colonies, whereas the title of Prime Minister is typically used for self-governing countries, of which Niue has been one for nearly 50 years."

A matter of status

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O'love Jacobsen said the way it was explained in Parliament was to align the premier's status with other Pacific leaders on the world stage.

"Because sometimes he is not truly recognised as a leader holding [a title of] premier," she said.

Jacobsen argued her stance against the change comes from a place of deep respect.

"No one takes leadership away from a person who is designated by law in its properness," Jacobsen said.

"Once you are voted in as a leader, you remain a leader and you're respected in that sense.

"But I kind of get the notion that he's not comfortable with that, because some countries in the Pacific carry the Prime Minister [title] and it seems that you're more accepted in that capacity."

While she did not think it's a deliberate steer away from New Zealand, she said it could be perceived as that.

"I think it's just a cautious way of trying to sound out how we could be a little bit more engaging with other countries, while being with New Zealand," Jacobsen said.

"That's why I maintain that we're in a very good position with New Zealand, and that's why we shouldn't spoil it and venture out to sort of give impressions that would do otherwise."

In a statement, Premier Dalton Tagelegi said the proposed changes signify Niue's increasing focus on self-governance and the island's own Pacific identity.

Niue is not an independent country, rather self-governing in free association with Aotearoa.

This year marks 50 years of that relationship.

Numbers game

Jacobsen said the country's population now rests at just under 2000, significantly less than the 1990s where she said there were around 5000.

To this end, to her it seems irrational to increase the number of cabinet ministers from four to six.

On top of that there is the cost - she said ministers roughly get paid around NZ$60,000.

"That's quite a big whack," Jacobsen said.

"Where are we going to get the money from? Are we going to go cap in hand to the government of New Zealand?"

Question of power

An extra year in power and another two MPs will give those at the top too much power, she said.

She explained it as a numbers game - 'this scenario is calculating'.

"That's not a road that I would like to pave for our people," Jacobsen said.

"It's a dangerous precedent.

"The quota of what you've got now, of four ministers, and a three-year term is plenty sufficient to make some changes if you need to.

"But seriously, if it falls into the wrong hands, you're going to find it hard to change it.

"Because these are small communities that we live in; everybody knows everybody."

Corruption

While she said Niue is pretty good at hitting corruption on the head, issues do pop up.

She said corruption comes in different forms.

"You could do certain things and keep your mouth shut; or else you do things, the way it's been put to you, otherwise your livelihood could be threatened," she said.

On top of that, people feel 'intimidated' and are scared to act as whistle blowers.

Government officials and public servants do not speak up, something she said is a critical part of democracy.

"Those are the kinds of things that are important for us to see in this whole picture that's been painted in front of us - that this was very calculating," Jacobsen said.

At the moment, Jacobsen said it looks like ministers will have too much power.

She said power in the wrong hands could spell big things happening.

"You subject yourself to corruption."

'Nature of politics'

O'love Jacobsen has been in politics for 36 years now.

"There are people in the Pacific that are looking around. Making sure that yes, we're well cared for. But this is just the nature of politics."

After decades at the decision-making table she is sounding a caution alarm, and asking that time is taken to consider the consequences and even look at other avenues.

"We could fall into things very quickly. We could endanger ourselves. We could become so vulnerable that we would not see it. You know that it's the wrong way to go."

Premier Dalton Tagelagi said a mandated stand-down period of 13 weeks is underway to provide the Niue public the opportunity to carefully consider the proposed constitutional changes as part of the 50th anniversary.

"As the Premier of Niue, I urge us to embrace responsibility and take ownership of our Constitution," Tagelagi said.

"Let us take charge of our future together, shaping a governance that reflects Niue's aspirations and values."

The Niue Assembly is expected to reconvene in August for the third reading of the bills.

RNZ Pacific has contacted the PR firm that sent out the Premier's statement for a follow-up response.

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