Residents on the tiny Pacific country of Tokelau are gearing up for a vote on independence which will be historic both for the population of about 1600 and for New Zealand -- but more in symbolic than practical terms.

There are 619 people, about 70 or 80 per cent of those eligible, registered to vote on whether New Zealand's last colony should move to self-government.

United Nations officials will supervise the referendum which will begin in Samoa's Apia tomorrow for Tokelauans temporarily based there. Apia is the setting off port to get to Tokelau which is 500km north of Samoa, a boat trip of 28 hours or longer. Voters on the atolls Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo will then have their turn and results will be announced on February 15.

However New Zealand-based administrator Neil Walter says if the vote is for change, to self-governance in free association with New Zealand, it will mean little practical difference to the people as they been running the country for years.

"This change of status, if it does occur, is really not much more than a formalisation and a recognition of that current situation, which is why this is not a gamble, a leap of faith at all," he said.

"They have tried and tested their political and service structures and are comfortable the time has arrived for a decision on their future political status."

That included running their public service, shipping, telecommunications, budget, participating in Pacific groups/organisation, and running their own system of government; "which is distinctly Tokelaun because its based on the village councils which are the traditional source of authority and they have their own judicial system."

Mr Walter said New Zealand had been helping build up governing capacity on the islands, which have a land area of only 12 sq km, for 30 years to get to this point. The country was annexed by Britain in 1889 and transferred to New Zealand's administration in 1926.

A council of elders governs the villages and civil servants on each atoll. Together the council leaders and their mayors form Tokelau's Cabinet, the Council for Ongoing Government. The General Fono, the national body, deals with issues such as fisheries, external relations and shipping.

If the vote is for change Tokelau and New Zealand will sign up to a treaty -- a document Mr Walter says will give more guarantee of support than now.

"It locks them in on one hand to greater self reliance and it locks New Zealand out of interference but into support."

New Zealand provides about $9 million a year, a figure reviewed every three years. The money comes out of the overseas development assistance budget. New Zealand also contributes to Tokelau's trust fund which is $25m and Tokelau gets some NZAID assistance.

The country has its own income of between $2m and $3m a year mainly from fishing licence fees for tuna and passenger and freight charges.

New Zealand also contributes makes special purpose grants for infrastructural development. A power project to get reliable electricity would cost up to $4m by completion and a shipping review is considering a purpose built vessel for the country.

"New Zealand has always accepted a special responsibility to its dependent territories, Mr Walter said.

"If New Zealand were to cease support Tokelau would not remain a viable living culture and community."

He said the basic idea of decolonisation enshrined in the UN charter was that dependent countries should be encouraged and helped to become as self reliant politically as possible.

"That squares with New Zealand's experience where the best decisions are those taken by the people themselves not taken in a smoke filled board room in Wellington."

There are far more Tokelauans in New Zealand than the homeland, about 7000 including second generation, and a large expatriate population in countries like Australia and Samoa, but they do not get to vote.

"They decided in Tokelau... it would be restricted to people in Tokelau."

Mr Walter said that was in line with UN views and meant the population would rule their own fate rather than be swamped by views of expatriates. There has been concern expressed in the New Zealand community over the decision.

For Mr Walter if Tokelau votes for change, which will give it a similar relationship to the Cook Islands and Niue, he will have come a full circle. He first came to the islands 30 years ago as first head of the public service, returned to stand in as administrator in 1980 and is now nearing the end of a three year term in the role.

"The major change if Tokelau votes for self-government is that I walk down the street."

* Maggie Tait's visit to the Tokelau Islands was sponsored by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation.