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referendum on self-determination for Tokelau was held on 20 October 2006 and on 22–24 October 2007, with the result that self-governance was rejected - for now.

Had it been successful, the referendum would have changed Tokelau's status from an unincorporated New  Zealand territory to a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, similar to the Cook Islands and Niue.

However, the referendum required a two-thirds positive vote to pass, and the "yes" side fell short of the required total by 16 votes.

In 2022, Tokelau formally decided to make a firm decision on its future and self-determination by 2025/26.

Three options will be considered:

  • full independence (which Sāmoa achieved in 1962);

  • in free association with New Zealand (which Niue gained in 1974 and the Cook Islands in 1965);

  • or fully integrating with New Zealand (like the Chatham Islands).

In 2009 it was reported that when and if Tokelau does become independent it will be seeking the return of Olohega, also known as Swains Island.  The paper presented to the General Fono in May 2020 simply said that Tokelau with "come up with a strategy regarding Olohega" during it's discussions and consultations until 2025/26.  (Also see Olohega on this website)

But there continue to be complex issues around self-determination for Tokelau.  Some of the issues are canvassed on this page.

Photo Caption: A woman votes on Fakaofo, in the 2007 United Nations-supervised referendum on self-government in the island nation. Turnout was high – only three of the registered voters living on Fakaofo failed to vote.  Source: Te Ara NZ

Atoll People (1970)

New Zealand's National Film Unit presents Atoll People (1970).  Archives New Zealand describes the film as a very human and moving story, probing the dilemma of the Tokelau Islanders - New Zealand citizens who make a bare living on their tiny coral islands. Should they stay there? Should they make a new life in New Zealand's urban society? Atoll People is concerned with people - as the net of today's world gathers them in.

Perceptions of New Zealand & Tokelau Relationship

In a 2021 Ingjerd Hoëm of University of Oslo wrote an article that discussed concepts of self-government, dependence and independence in the light of Tokelau and New Zealand practices.  Here are excerpts from that article:


Kin-based forms of mutual dependence are compared with the demands for specific forms of self-governance practiced by the New Zealand administration. Tensions of value have emerged between village based political leadership, and the public servants of the administrative infrastructure.

The smallness of Tokelau’s land area is complemented by its considerable maritime resources secured by an Exclusive Economic Zone. Tokelau’s need for New Zealand administrative support to administer its fishing quotas, and for military policing of its maritime boundaries, makes Tokelau dependent on the greater power.

The relationships of dependency going the other way, that is New Zealand’s dependence on the marine wealth of Tokelau and its strategic value as Pacific partner, are largely obscured by the policies that demand Tokelau reaches an internationally approved standards of governmental practices for it to be able to govern its own affairs. The two forms of dependency, one based on reciprocity and mutuality, and the other, rooted in an economic logic of self-sufficiency are entangled in everyday life in Tokelau. However, the practices of economic self-sufficiency work over time to erode the viability of the local subsistence economy.

Hoëm writes that the National Assembly of Tokelau, the General Fono, has debated the issue of acquiring a boat repeatedly through its formation in the early 1950s. As Tokelau is, according to the United Nations, a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory’, the responsibility of ensuring means of communication in principle rests with New Zealand. New Zealand officials have repeatedly assured Tokelau, throughout this and much of the previous century, of their intention of providing Tokelau with a boat. This situation was partially remedied in 2014, when a Danish firm was commissioned to build a boat for Tokelau.

In 2006 and 2007, Tokelau held their first ever referendum on their future relationship with New Zealand. If this boat had materialized earlier, at least prior to the first referendum, there is a small likelihood that the outcome of the vote would have been different. The part of the constituency voting against Tokelau self-government won by a narrow margin in the first referendum. These voters expressed a strong suspicion that New Zealand wished to terminate their relationship with Tokelau, or ‘cut the cord’, as they called it. They strongly preferred a continued relationship of (inter)dependence, fearing the consequences of being cut-off from the political, financial and military support of New Zealand.

New Zealand Promises Support Towards Independence (2019)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern says New Zealand will provide whatever infrastructural support Tokelau needs to make its self-determination decision.

 Decision by 2025

Radio NZ - Tokelau leader drafts independence referendum, May 2020

In May 2020 Radio New Zealand reported there was a push for Tokelau to again have the chance to decide if it should become independent from New Zealand.  A Tokelauan leader wants a referendum on independence to be held by 2025, the centenary of New Zealand's rule. (Audio above)

Writing in the New Zealand online magazine The Spinoff in July 2022, Samson Samasoni, who is of Tokelauan/Samoan descent, wrote that  since 1925, Tokelau has been a New Zealand ‘colony’ but that in a “momentous” decision in May 2022, Tokelau’s General Fono has decided that it's future is again on the agenda. Here is an excerpt:

It was in 2006 and 2007 that Tokelau last came close to making a decision on its future, but both times not enough Tokelauans supported the change to self-government in the referendum conducted.

“It’s now 14 years since we took that referendum, and there has been silence since with no further conversation where to from here,” says the English language version of a paper presented to the General Fono in May. “Tokelau should be looking at defining its position. What future dreams does Tokelau wants (sic)? The answer is only within Tokelau.” 


New Zealand agrees that the answer lies with Tokelau. A spokesperson for the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, says that “ultimately this is a process being driven by Tokelau and their decision to make”.

According to the UN, a non-self-governing territory can be said to have reached a full measure of self-government by emerging as a:

  • sovereign independent state,

  • in free association with an independent state

  • integration with an independent state.


Whatever decolonisation pathway Tokelau decides by 2025/26, it could still be some time before the decision is formally actioned. Pressure for Sāmoa to become independent grew after the second world war but it was more than 15 years before its independence was formally enacted in 1962.

As with most things to do with Tokelau, people who survive off the bounty of the sea but are also threatened by it in terms of king tides and sea-level rise, analogies of sea-faring and voyaging are pervasive.

“What is important, as our ancestors would say ‘Taia ko Lata Matau’.  Let’s be strong to first allow Tokelau to develop then seek help later,” the General Fono paper says.

“Let’s look forward for better days, knowing, there will be many challenges, but Tokelau can initiate the work to know the right tack depending on the wind direction whether it’s from the stern, the bow, starboard or port side. Important the vaka (vessel) is buoyance (sic), steady keel, straight forward sailing.”

Is Independence Possible? (2020)

International Relations specialist Professor James Ker-Lindsay examines the history of Tokelau and whether statehood really is a viable option? Or is Tokelau simply too small to be an independent country? 

Irony of Self Governance

Peter McKenzie posed an interesting question writing in the UK newspaper The Guardian in October 2021 - "Is it to satisfy you or to satisfy us?’ Why New Zealand’s Pacific colony doesn’t want independence".  He wrote about the challenge Tokelau had to choose between the three self-determination options.  Here is an exerpt:

As this debate emerges, New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has taken a hands-off approach. Ross Ardern, the current administrator of Tokelau and father of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, emphasised his commitment to partnering with Tokelau “to achieve a self-determination outcome that fits the local Tokelauan context … Where a self-determination option involves an ongoing relationship between Tokelau and New Zealand, the nature of that relationship will be one that is acceptable to both and New Zealand would expect that Tokelau would lead on that”.

It’s a different approach to that taken by MFAT previously. Prior to the referendums Neil Walter, then the administrator, advocated so forcefully for self-governance that some Tokelauans nicknamed him “afā” (cyclone). Judith Huntsman, an Auckland University academic who specialises in Tokelau’s politics and history, said the focus on self-governance which characterised previous discussions of Tokelau’s future was the result of the UN and MFAT “suppress[ing]” options like integration. Huntsman has previously suggested New Zealand’s forthright support for self-governance was largely because MFAT wanted to get New Zealand off the UN’s formal list of colonising powers.

This is the irony of previous self-governance efforts: they often seemed more driven by outsiders than by Tokelauans themselves. In 2004, a press release attributed to the Ulu-o-Tokelau said of self-governance, “We’ve said this to the UN and to New Zealand … Why do we want to do this? Is it to satisfy you or to satisfy us?” So few Tokelauans openly advocated for self-governance that Walter confessed at the time that, “I’d be glad of an independence firebrand, frankly.”

Kelihiano Kalolo, the Ulu-o-Tokelau (national leader) hopes to change that sentiment by prompting Tokelauans to reclaim control of and consider every option for their future. In a book co-written with Huntsman, he emphasised that “the oft-spoken saying during the [2006] Referendum [was]: Ko au e hē malamalama – ‘I do not understand’.” In an interview he emphasised, “I just want people to understand the three options … Whether people are willing to take up self-determination again or not, that’s their choice.

UN - Decolonisation (2020)

Since the United Nations was established in 1945, more than 80 former colonies have gained their independence. Today, the United Nations assists 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories across the globe. The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs supports the work of the General Assembly, particularly its Special Committee on Decolonization, in the eradication of colonialism.

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