NZ investigates Niue Premier shareholding in SOEs

Sir Toke Talagi. Picture: RNZ

WELLINGTON/ALOFI, 27 NOVEMBER 2018 (RNZ PACIFIC) – New Zealand is investigating allegations Niue’s Premier has illegally made himself the sole beneficiary of his country’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Records from Niue’s Companies Office show three of the country’s seven SOEs list Sir Toke Talagi as the sole shareholder.

Another SOE is held by Sir Toke’s cousin Billy Talagi, Minister for Social Services, while there is no publicly available information for the other three companies.

“It’s definitely unlawful,” said Niue opposition MP O’Love Jacobsen, who was also Niue’s High Commissioner to New Zealand from 2011-2017.

“It should never happen that way and we need to put it right.”

Sir Toke, who is also Niue’s Finance Minister, did not respond to repeated interview requests.

On November 9,  Jacobsen raised her concerns in Wellington, where she met with Jonathan Kings, a deputy secretary at New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

According to her,Kings said MFAT’s legal team would look into the issues she raised.

In a statement, an MFAT spokesperson said it was aware of Jacobsen’s concerns but that ultimately, it was a matter for Niue’s government as a self-governing nation.

“Ministers or Senior Officials holding shares or directorships in state-owned enterprises on behalf of a government is common,” the spokesperson said.

Jacobsen was also concerned about the level of transparency in Sir Toke’s government, which she said did not consult Niue’s assembly, or legislature, on the shareholding parcels.

Also done behind closed doors was the privatisation of three SOEs, she said. Companies Office records show Telecom Niue, Niue Commercial Enterprise and Niue Bond Liquor are privately listed companies, with shares held by Sir Toke and his cousin Billy.

“We need to at least have some evidence through cabinet minutes to say that this is what we have done,” said Jacobsen.

“Some people who are in key positions of the finances of this country are very, very close to each other.”

Last week, a team of auditors from New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General arrived in Niue to continue work on audits of the government’s accounts, which Wellington provides regular assistance with.

However, the auditors are also understood to be looking into a 3-year backlog of unaudited accounts, including those of SOEs.

The backlog prompted the Auditor-General’s Office to issue a warning in July to Niue’s parliamentary speaker, Tongiavalu Pihigia, according to a letter obtained by RNZ Pacific. The contents of the letter was first reported on in October.

The letter prompted Sir Toke to hit back at New Zealand, denying any wrongdoing and saying he had ordered an independent assessment of the Auditor General’s work in Niue.

It said a partially completed audit for the 2014/2015 period revealed estimated revenue shortfalls of US$550,000 from port and import duty charges, which the Auditor-General had been “unable to obtain an explanation for”.

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