New revelation in Tokelau chopper furore in air transport ‘big picture’

Remote US-administered Swains Island planned as a stopover point between Samoa and Tokelau, effectively splitting the direct helicopter flight in two. Image: Wikipedia

By Mackenzie Smith in Auckland

Tokelau’s purchase of helicopters included plans to travel via remote Swains Island, contradicting earlier reports claiming the aircraft were ill-suited for the job.

Documents also reveal New Zealand officials approved plans for air services to Tokelau in the lead-up to the heavily criticised investment.

Tokelau air transport plans as detailed in the July 2016 General Fono minutes.

In February, it was revealed that Tokelau had bought two helicopters to circumvent the 24-hour ferry voyage from Samoa, expenditure Foreign Minister Murray McCully described as “extravagances”.

At the time, NZ Helicopter Association chairperson Peter Turnbull raised doubts about  whether the aircraft would be able to make the almost 500km trip from Samoa to Tokelau.

The incident prompted New Zealand’s Administrator to the territory, David Nicholson, to propose veto powers on purchases more than NZ$500,000 by Tokelau’s local government.

However, inquiries have revealed plans to use the US-administered Swains Island (pop. 17) as a stopover point between Samoa and Tokelau, effectively splitting the direct flight in two.

In light of this, Turnbull said both legs of the journey were “quite achievable” by the Bell 212 “Huey” helicopter purchased by Tokelau.

Approached by officials
American Samoa Representative and owner of Swains, Su’a Alex Jennings, said he was approached in January by officials from Tokelau’s National Public Service based in Apia.

Su’a said he had later contacted the US Federal Aviation Administration and was told Swains could be used in emergencies and as a fuel stop for the helicopters.

He said he had also briefed local leaders from the American Samoa government and further progress was only “pending a formal commitment” from Tokelau.

Following public outrage from Minister McCully and Ulu o Tokelau Siopili Perez, that commitment seems unlikely, with the General Fono agreeing last month to sell the helicopters.

Both helicopters were sold separately by New Zealand businesses and licensed with the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand.

Under the National government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has pushed for air transport to Tokelau since 2010, when then-acting administrator Jonathan Kings said Minister McCully was “personally excited” about air services he viewed as a “sensible, workable and sustainable” solution.

A meeting in June last year between the previous Ulu, Afega Gaualofa and Minister McCully saw the prospect of a regular air service between Tokelau and Samoa raised further.

Earlier McCully support
Minister McCully said in a written statement at the time he supported the project and the use of Tokelau’s International Trust Fund towards paying for it.

Swains Island in relation to independent Samoa and American Samoa. Map: National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

Air services were put forward as part of Tokelau’s proposed development initiatives the following month at the General Fono in Fakaofo.

This included plans for an interim air service to be “up and running soonest” until village airstrips on Tokelau’s atolls could be constructed.

An independent review of the helicopter purchases, commissioned by David Nicholson, has been completed and found “issues of governance and process around capital purchases”, said Minister McCully in a written response to questions tabled by Labour’s Pacific Island Affairs spokesperson Aupito William Sio.

Aupito said it was time for Minister McCully to “come clean” and reveal what came out of the report in this review.

“We also know that there was a meeting that occurred on March 16th in Apia between the minister, the administrator and the Tokelau leadership and I think it’s in the public interest to know what was discussed at that meeting.”

Currently, the only means of transport to Tokelau is the Mataliki, a ship designed in London and built in Bangladesh at a cost of over NZ$12 million, paid for by the New Zealand government.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it would not respond to questions regarding the purchases due to an “ongoing inquiry taking place in Tokelau”.

Minister McCully declined to comment, while David Nicholson and Siopili Perez could not be reached for comment.

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Mackenzie Smith is a "retired" pro-gamer who now resides in Auckland, New Zealand. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Communications at Auckland University of Technology.


  1. It would not surprise me if McCully and the NZ administrator orchestrated the whole thing and it only came to light because someone questioned the purchase of the helicopters.
    That someone could be the people of Tokelau who were not aware that the purchase had already taken place. This may be the reason that they were surprised at the purchase.
    The administrator’s role in the purchase needs to be scrutinised, as well as anyone else that was involved in the deal and stood to gain financially from the purchase to the supply of services to get this going.
    Something stinks about this and blaming the islanders is easy for most people to accept. It is a ploy used by politicians with no integrity. McCully has done nothing to earn my respect as a politician.
    The National governments have only ever paid lip service to Tokelau.
    They have a history of selling out Tokelau – instead of supporting Tokelau in their bid to have Swains island returned from under USA rule in 1981. USA applied pressure and asked the then National government for support. NZ supported the US and made Tokelau withdraw their petition to the United Nations. Here I was thinking NZ had Tokelau’s best interests at heart.

    • now any one who hasn’t visited Tokelau wouldn’t understand the complexities involved. And may come to the conclusion, New Zealand is the overbearing Colonial power.

      The problem lies inside Tokelau. Its Unclear who actually runs Tokelau. Each atoll operates as its own autonomous state Fakafo, Nukununo, Atafo. Then the public service in Apia tries to run the whole country as acting government or whether one of the atolls tries to run the public service. ?
      And any one of the four bodies could have been responsable for purchasing the helicopters. With out any one knowing who was supposed to report to who and who is responsible .

      A closer working relationship with the administrator could only be a good thing and the sooner Tokelau finds an inner political unity between the three atolls the better.

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