If Tuvalu’s seat in regional and international forums are becoming more vacant these days, then blame it on the island’s new Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia, who will in turn point a figure at his predecessor, Maatia Toafa.
Concerned about the state of Tuvalu’s economy when his group won the numbers to form the new government following the general election last August, Ielemia has banned overseas travels for all civil servants, including his own cabinet ministers.
“Unless the trip is funded 100% by a donor, no civil servant will be travelling overseas for some time,” Ielemia told ISLANDS BUSINESS last month.
“A lot of public money is going to pay for such travels and it seems from papers we are seeing that ministers in the previous government spend most of their time travelling out of Tuvalu than staying in office to work.”
Such travels, according to Tuvalu’s new leader, has been a concern amongst the people of his island. And he believes this was one of the reasons voters voted out the previous government of Toafa.
“Clearly, the people vote us in because they want an honest government, one that will do away with corruption.
“They want leaders who will work to improve their lives, the lives of people living in Funafuti who have been neglected by previous governments.”
The new prime minister said poor management of the government’s finances has seen Tuvalu’s deficit widening and government living on overdraft. But he would not disclose figures. He said with expenditures exceeding revenue, his new administration has no choice but to rein in costs by implementing austere measures like banning overseas trips.
Although deemed successful, Ielemia said he could not access the government’s trust fund to pay off the deficit as this is forbidden by law. This year’s dividends have been used up already, he said. In addition, revenue from fishing fees and its TV domain name have not been as good as envisaged.
He’s hopeful 2007 would be a better year for Tuvalu in terms of revenue earnings and collection.
While the travel ban has affected Tuvalu’s participation at some overseas meetings, it didn’t affect Ielemia’s participation at his first overseas summit since coming into office; the inaugural Pacific/Taiwan summit with Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-Bian, held in Palau last month.
It would not affect his travel to Fiji this month to attend his first Pacific Islands Forum meeting. The new Tuvalu PM said both trips were an exception because of their importance.
Aides also told this magazine that both trips are being funded by external sponsors.
The prime minister confirmed that Taipei has promised more aid for Tuvalu, but said details of these would be released once he has informed his other five cabinet colleagues.
Like the PM, all members of his cabinet are former civil servants. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Natural Resources, Tavau Teii, was a former director of agriculture; Taukelina Finikaso, the new Minister for Communication, Transport, Works and Energy, was until recently Tuvalu’s high commissioner in Fiji; Minister for Home Affairs, Willy Telavi, was a former Commissioner of Police; Iakoba Italeli, the Minister for Health, Education and Sports, was a former Attorney-General; and new Finance and Economic Planning Minister, Lotoala Metia, served as auditor-general before contesting the August election.
A priority for Ielemia will be the island’s air links. He confirmed he’s not happy with the services provided by the sole operator of international flights into Tuvalu, Air Fiji. His government holds majority shares in the airline.
“We certainly want to see some improvements in their services and operations,” said the PM.
“Being the largest shareholder, I think the people of Tuvalu would like to see a return on their investments.”
The former civil servant, who once served as clerk to Tuvalu’s 15-member legislature, said his government has not been approached by Fiji’s international carrier Air Pacific on future flight possibilities to Tuvalu.
“We haven’t had any contacts from Air Pacific but we will be ready to talk with them if they do.”
Such a response would be music to the ears of Fiji’s national carrier given its renewed interest to service regional routes. It has already taken delivery of one of its two ATR-72 aircraft which Air Pacific hopes to use on destinations like Tarawa, north of Funafuti.
Another area requiring change, Ielemia said would be the operations of Radio Tuvalu, the sole radio broadcaster on the island.
He wants the station’s news service to be boosted and strengthened, complaining that currently islanders have to listen to overseas news services to know what’s happening in Tuvalu.