Obituary: Sir Robert Rex
Wednesday 16 December 1992
Savage Island. That was the name bestowed by Captain Cook on Niue in 1774 'because of the fierce appearance and hostile conduct of the islanders'. The oval- shaped island of 258 square kilometres is built like a three-tiered wedding cake, with a difference: this one's ingredients are hard white coral. Indeed, Niue is the world's biggest raised coral island. Its remarkable uplifted limestone formations house huge caves, many containing deep pools. Great clefts in the cliffs lead to little white sand beaches. The port of Alofi is an open roadstead. Vessels anchor off a rocky foreshore. Cargo is handled, at times with great difficulty in a heavy swell, by launches towing lighters through a natural passage in the reef. To the west, the Kingdom of Tonga; to the east the Cook Islands and the great expanses of the South Pacific ocean to South America.
The island, people, and constitutional status of Niue are unique in South Pacific Polynesia, the Cook Islands excepted. Neither the island's character nor that of its people are attributable to the pragmatic dexterity of its long-serving premier, Sir Robert Rex. Its constitutional best-of-all- worlds may well be. If its nearest neighbour, Tonga, has sometimes in regional affairs been the odd man out, Niue may be seen as the odd man in: in, that is, with New Zealand.
British sovereignty was proclaimed over the island in 1900. In the following year, Niue was annexed to New Zealand, which remains effectively responsible for the island's foreign affairs and defence. Since 1974, Niue has been 'self-governing in free association with New Zealand'. The people of Niue enjoy New Zealand citizenship. They are thus able not only to travel freely to and from New Zealand but also to reside there. So the population of Niue (2,100) continues to shrink. Nearly six times that number now live in New Zealand.
The Niuean is slim, short and wiry - a far cry physically from his amply proportioned cousin the Tongan. Unlike Polynesian societies generally, there are no hereditary chiefs. Each family head has a status equal to that of any other. The emergence and sustained electoral leadership of Robert Rex from 1966, when he became Leader of Government Business, through six successive general elections as Premier since 1974, is thus the more remarkable.
His little Polynesian outpost was isolated for so long that a passing aircraft was a hilarious rarity. On one occasion, a Tasman Empire Airways (now Air New Zealand) Solent flying-boat was returning to Fiji from Tahiti. The pilot circled round the island at 2,000ft, upon which Robert Rex's house- girl fled indoors to emerge a few minutes later in a bright new dress and a revived hair-do. She was, she stated emphatically, in no fit state to be seen by the passengers on the aeroplane. Her name was Kilisimasi Tina ('Christmas Dinner').
For Polynesians, the Niueans are indifferent singers and their dancing is a hybrid conglomeration of the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga. But if they do not excel in the cultural arts, they are industrious and creative craftsmen and women; Niuean fans, baskets and mats are some of the finest and most elegant in the South Pacific.
Rex emerged as a South Pacific island leader of great durability. He came from a humble trading background. Short, quiet, modest but shrewd, and without the flamboyance of some of his Polynesian counterparts, he none the less played a significant role in shaping the post-war nature of the South Pacific Commission and Conference. Gentle-natured, if undynamic, he was the last surviving political leader (in continuous elected office) from among those who formed the South Pacific Forum in 1971. It was a circumstance in which he took some justified personal pride.
He was premier without a break from 1974. He survived in office in spite of opposition success in the snap election he called in 1990 following a disastrous hurricane. He was an astute political and parliamentary operator; and at one time or another held all the ministerial portfolios there were to hold. Rex leaves the political stage when there is a serious question over the future of his country. Niue is dependent on New Zealand for its budget, and over 80 per cent of the remaining workforce is in the public- sector payroll. Rex tried unsuccessfully to develop the economy and to stem emigration. The lure of higher wages and the relative sophistications of Auckland, the so-called capital of Polynesia, proved too much. Sadly, Niue is far from being the only South Pacific territory to suffer in this way.
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