Key Points:

Later this month, between the 20th and 24th of October, the 1200 or so people of Tokelau will vote in a UN-sponsored referendum on whether or not to become a self-governing state in association with New Zealand.

To many people, including many Tokelauans, the idea of a self-governing state with so few people might seem to be an absurdity, or even wholly ludicrous when it is considered that the total land area of the three atolls is only about 12sq m, that they are in the central Pacific north of Samoa, and that they have no capital, no harbours and no airstrips.

Tokelauans are New Zealand citizens, and have been since 1949. The referendum is being promoted by both New Zealand and the UN Committee on Colonialism, following the terms of a 1960 resolution of the UN General Assembly that all non self-governing territories should be allowed an opportunity to choose between the three options of full integration with another state, self-government or complete independence.

The Cook Islands and Niue faced these decisions several decades ago, and both chose self-government. It is now Tokelau's turn.

However, the unseemly element here is that Tokelau had a referendum on exactly the same issue last year, and voted against self-government. A two-thirds majority was needed to effect a change from the status quo, but the official tally was 60 per cent "Yes" votes against 40 per cent who voted "No".

On the face of it, those figures could be read as a close call. However, what these official figures concealed is that about 30 per cent of those who were eligible to be on the electoral roll in fact failed to register.

It was not that they didn't understand the need to do so. They simply wanted no part in the whole exercise. Counting these people among those who explicitly voted "No" indicates that only about 47 per cent of the people voted "Yes".

One might think that that would have been the end of the issue, at least for a few years. But now they are going to be voting again, and again, the outcome is uncertain.

There has never at any time been a groundswell of popular opinion for self-government in Tokelau. There have never been any "freedom fighters".

In fact, just before the first referendum, a senior New Zealand official told a New Yorker columnist who was along for the ride, that he wished there were a few firebrands around to make things clearer. There are still no firebrands.

Ironically, Tokelau has a long history of self-sufficiency and successful local government, based on kinship and traditional leadership, law and land tenure. Under this regime the three communities were largely self-sufficient, orderly and peaceful. There were no murders, no police and no jails.

It was not until the 1960s, when the population on the atolls peaked at more than 1900, that New Zealand began to sponsor emigration to this country and to build up the schools and medical services.

In 1976, the first UN Visiting Mission arrived to see what was going on and to pose to the people the question of whether they wanted integration with New Zealand, self-government or full independence.

The people's clear answer was that they were quite happy as they were, although they hoped for some more assistance with "development". New Zealand responded willingly enough, improving communications and other social services, while, at the same time, building up a cadre of local administrative officials, the Tokelau Public Service.

New Zealand also fostered national political development by the establishment of a "General Fono" composed of representatives from the three islands, and later, a small three-person "Council of Faipule", made up of the elected leaders (Faipule) of the atolls.

There were further Visiting Missions from the UN Committee on Colonialism in 1981, 1986 and 1994, but Tokelau kept steadily to its decision to stay with the political status quo. It was not until late 1999 that Tokelau proposed political and constitutional changes on the basis of which it could consider a move to self-government in free association with New Zealand.

Again New Zealand responded willingly, and in the years 2000-04 a large New Zealand aid project was devoted to what had become known as the "Modern House of Tokelau".

This project involved a radical restructuring and augmentation of the Tokelau Public Service to provide advice, money and support to the village councils, which were generally wise and judicious in local matters, but relatively unsophisticated in matters that the national government had to deal with.

In this way the Tokelau Public Service gained influence, if not control, over the grass roots of Tokelau life.

From the outset, the idea of a referendum was driven by the UN Committee on Colonialism and the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which wanted to see its obligations to help Tokelau finally bear fruit and so clear New Zealand of any lingering taint of colonialism.

It was the creature of bureaucrats, and the immediate goal was always to create a plausible government structure which had at least the appearance of autonomy. That, almost in its entirety, was the bureaucratic view of "development".

In the lead up to the first referendum in early 2006 consultations between New Zealand officials and Tokelau officials and the Council of Faipule (later the Council of Ongoing Government) were intensive, frequent and congenial.

In the end, however, New Zealand left it to the Tokelau political and administrative establishment to get the message about the advantages of self-government across to "the people". The "people" obviously had their doubts.

The 7000 or so Tokelauans in New Zealand most certainly had their doubts, and they debated them vigorously on air in sessions such as NiuFM's weekly Tokelauan programme and the thrice-weekly Tokelauan talk back sessions on Access Radio.

Then, two months ago, in an attempt to bring the issues to the attention of New Zealand policy makers, a group of Wellington Tokelauans made substantial submissions to the current Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry into New Zealand's Relations with the South Pacific. The submissions were not against the referendum as such, but were concerned to draw attention to a number of issues.

Firstly, the haste with which the first referendum was held, allowing so little time for the new political system to "bed in" and work out proper procedures. Secondly, the reasons for holding a second referendum at all when the result of the first was quite plain.

Thirdly, the pressing need for better health and education facilities, which are at present held back by the shortage of trained people. Fourthly, the complete lack of attention to substantive economic development.

Tokelau has relatively few resources, but there are clear options as to how these might be made use of in ways that would provide more useful and meaningful lives than simply existing on the aid-financed payroll, doing "village work" for $2.50 an hour.

Finally, the submissions call for a more measured pace of change, and a chance to seriously consider the other options available - to keep to the status quo in the meantime and also to explore the possibility of some form of integration with New Zealand.