Tokelau Government

Political System

Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory and has been administered by New Zealand since 1926. The Administrator of Tokelau, a statutory position, is held by a New Zealand senior public servant and is appointed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Administrator has technical responsibility for the administration of Tokelau's executive government as set out in the Tokelau Act 1948 (as amended) and the Tokelau Administration Regulations 1993.  In practice, however, through a progressive transfer of authority and responsibility over the past decade, Tokelau is largely self governing with a system of government based on traditional village leadership.

The position of Ulu-o-Tokelau, the Titular Head of State, is rotated among the leader of each atoll (the Faipule) on an annual basis. The General Fono (national assembly) meets three times a year and is made up of elected representatives from each atoll.  Executive authority rests with the Council of the Ongoing Government of Tokelau which is based in Apia, Samoa. Tokelau does not have opposition parties.

Government the Tokelauan Way: Every three years sees the election of a Faipule (Village Head) and a Pulenuku (elected Mayor) who directs village activities. Members of the General Fono or National Assembly are also elected at three-year intervals to deal with national issues. The authority of the General Fono is granted by the Taupulega which remain the ultimate source of authority in Tokelau. Between the General Fono meetings, the three Faipule and three Pulenuku (mayors) meet as the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau which forms the tie between the traditional village governing structure and the national government.

The Ulu-o-Tokelau, is the head of the national government. The Ulu chairs the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau while the Chairman of the General Fono is elected by Fono members. Foua Toloa from Fakaofo is Ulu for 2009. Kuresa Nasau is Faipule of Atafu and will be Ulu in 2010, Pio Tuia is Faipule of Nukunonu and will serve in 2011.

The General Fono meets in three sessions of approximately four days during the year. Elections for General Fono representatives are held every three years. In the January 2002 elections, the General Fono adopted a population-based pattern of representation which in 2008 entitled Atafu to seven members, Fakaofo seven and Nukunonu six – making a total of 20 seats.

The Tokelau Amendment Act passed by the New Zealand Parliament in 1996, which came into force on 1 August of that year, conferred on the General Fono the authority to make rules for the peace, order and good government of Tokelau, including the power to impose taxes.  The Rules of the General Fono have legal effect in Tokelau. Although Rules may be disallowed by the Administrator within a particular period of time, in practice this power has never been exercised.

New Zealand statute law does not apply to Tokelau unless it is expressly extended to Tokelau. In practice, no New Zealand legislation is extended to Tokelau without Tokelauan consent.

Political and Constitutional Development: In 2003 New Zealand and Tokelau developed a Joint Statement on the Principles of Partnership between the two entities. The document is of a political rather than legal nature and addresses the responsibilities of each party in managing their close partnership. This includes maintenance of language and culture, New Zealand citizenship, economic and administrative assistance, and the Tokelauan community in New Zealand. The document was signed in Tokelau in November 2003, in the presence of the Governor-General. The former Prime Minister of New Zealand made an official visit to Tokelau in August 2004.

In November 2005 New Zealand and Tokelau approved the text of a Draft Treaty of Free Association which formed the basis of a formal act of self-determination by Tokelau in February 2006. The referendum rules set by the General Fono required a two thirds majority of valid votes for a change of status to self-government in free association with New Zealand. The referendum was monitored by a United Nations team. Although the referendum did not reach the required two-third’s majority, Tokelau asked that the draft Treaty and supporting documents remain ‘on the table’ as Tokelau debated its political future.

At the General Fono in August 2006 it was decided to hold a second referendum the following year. Extensive consultations took place in Tokelau prior to this second vote. In addition, Tokelau's Council for Ongoing Government met with Tokelauan communities outside Tokelau - in New Zealand, Hawaii, American Samoa, Samoa and Australia. From 20-24 October 2007, Tokelau held its second referendum and again did not reach the two-thirds majority required for a change of status.  The result is that Tokelauans have exercised their right to self-determination on both these occasions by voting to remain members of a non-self governing territory within the Realm of New Zealand.

Following these two referenda Tokelau’s leaders, in February 2008, met with New Zealand’s Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the discussions held during this period it was agreed that Tokelau would benefit from increased effort and attention being directed to the improvement of services and infrastructure on the atolls. This shared commitment has continued to inform programmes within Tokelau and those directed at supporting the quality of living on the atolls.

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Foreign Relations

Tokelau does not have an international legal personality separate from that of New Zealand.  New Zealand may extend treaty obligations which it enters into to Tokelau, if Tokelau expressly requests to be included.  New Zealand supports Tokelau’s aspirations to enter into arrangements with other countries or join regional or international organisations in its own right, where such participation is consistent with Tokelau’s status as a non-self-governing territory.

Multilateral Linkages

With New Zealand’s support, Tokelau has sought and obtained the entitlement to participate fully and in its own right in regional organisations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme, the Forum Fisheries Agency, SOPAC and the Council of the University of the South Pacific.  Observer status was granted to Tokelau by the Pacific Islands Forum in October 2005. Tokelau is also an associate member of the World Health Organisation and UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

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Bilateral relationship

Tokelau, as a non-self-governing territory, remains on the list of such territories compiled by the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. Increasingly, Tokelau has expressed a desire to run itself to the greatest extent possible. Much thought has been given in Tokelau and New Zealand as to the best path to achieve some kind of sustained autonomy. This is also consistent with New Zealand’s obligation, in terms of Article 73 of the UN Charter, to work with Tokelau towards an act of self-determination.

From the 1960s, following the path of many Pacific countries, New Zealand worked with Tokelau to establish a model of government (based on a national legislature and a national public service). In recent years Tokelauans made it clear that they would prefer the source of authority on Tokelau to be the Taupulega (village councils of elders – the traditional governing authority). The desire to return to a system of self-government based on the village led to the decision to transfer the Administrator’s authority to the three Taupulega, which now manage all services at the village level and have delegated authority to the General Fono and Council for Ongoing Government to decide issues of national and international significance. This approach is distinct from the Westminster system, and is more suited to the Tokelauan context.


Under the Principles of Partnership New Zealand retains responsibility for the defence and security of Tokelau.  Tokelau benefits from the maritime surveillance programmes of the New Zealand Defence Force and is also supported wherever possible through other defence programmes.


Tokelauans, as New Zealand citizens, have full rights to enter and live in New Zealand and receive the same benefits as other New Zealanders.  Tokelauans travel on New Zealand passports. 

Shipping services


International Access to Tokelau is only available by sea via Apia, Samoa.
The Tokelau Government owns and operates two vessels that provide this service. The MV Mataliki provides passenger service and the LCT Kalopaga cargo and freight services.
The ships schedules are managed by the Department of Transport based in Apia. Together, the two vessels provide the three atolls with regular visits on a weekly basis although this can be changed at short notice due to the nature of the weather and other demands from the three atolls.


The three atolls are isolated and travel between them is only possible by boat. Domestically, the Government-owned, Fetu ote Moana provides inter-atoll services. However, this service is only available by charter at this stage. The vessel's charter schedule is managed by the Department of Transport.

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Official Development Assistance

Crushed cans for recycling Preparation of cans and plastic bottles for recycling

Waste Management Project on the village of Nukunonu, 2008. Preparation for recycling - crushing of cans and packaging of plastic bottles for shipment offshore.

For the 2009/10 financial year, New Zealand’s projected official development assistance to Tokelau is approximately $19 million. New Zealand is the largest bilateral donor to Tokelau, with its economic support amounting to around 80 percent of Tokelau’s recurrent budget. In July 2003, Tokelau assumed responsibility for full budget support, where previously a mix of budget support and project support had been provided. An International Trust Fund was established in 2004 to provide Tokelau with an independent source of revenue and now stands at $56 million.