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By Savea Sano Malifa

APIA, Samoa (January 22, 20001 - Samoa Observer/PINA Nius Online)---An attempt in Parliament to blame Ansett of Australia for the present financial problems engulfing Polynesian Airlines failed.

Made by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, the allegation was rebuffed by the Leader of the Opposition, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese, who said he had evidence to prove the government was responsible.

Tuilaepa said Polynesian Airlines "went broke" because Ansett relinquished its management "at short notice" so that there was not enough time to put together a proper management strategy.

This was rubbish, Tuiatua countered. "I can provide a copy of the report by (Sala) Epa (Tuioti, former financial secretary) that says the causes of the problem were abuse and negligence," he told Parliament.

"There was nothing about Ansett in it. Yes, abuse and negligence. That was also what the report from the Controller and Chief Auditor said."

In fact, Tuiatua reminded Parliament the latter recommended that those responsible should be charged with "criminal negligence." Tuilaepa did not make a direct response to this claim, but continued to accuse Tuiatua of being unfaithful to the airline.

"From 1996 he has been accusing it of negligence, but members of his family are working for the airline and other Samoans as well," Tuilaepa said.

He wanted to know what would Tuiatua do if the airline stopped flying and those people would be out of work?

"I am not here to protect my family," Tuiatua replied. "I am here to protect the interests of this country because they are the ones who are going to carry the burden."

The exchange took place while Opposition MP Le Mamea Ropati was addressing the supplementary estimates.

Le Mamea said he supported the national airline "99 percent" and

Tuilaepa took the floor to thank him. "Thank you Le Mamea for your support of Polynesian Airlines," Tuilaepa said. "You and I used to share the same pillow when we were cabinet ministers in the HRPP. Tofilau (late PM) had trust in you." Since then, Le Mamea has joined the Samoa National Development Party (SNDP).

Continued Tuilaepa: "So advise your leader to support the airline. Perhaps he’s determined to destroy Polynesian Airlines because he’s been rewarded by the airline he’s now using." That was when Tuiatua intervened to object.

"What I object to is the abuse and reckless handling of the airline because it’s the whole country who is paying for it," Tuiatua said. Besides, he did support the local airline and would fly it if his finances permit.

But since most of his travels are paid for from overseas sources, he did not have much of a say in it. "But if they pay me a ticket on Polynesian Airlines, I travel on it."

When Tuiatua was prime minister in the late seventies, the government entered into an agreement with Ansett to operate Polynesian Airlines.

The deal was that Ansett would pay for all operational costs with no financial contribution from the government, and if a profit were made, this would be shared between the two.

At that time, Polynesian Airlines owned a Boeing 737 bought with a $US 10 million loan guaranteed by the government of Nauru.

In return, Nauru was allowed to buy real estate in Samoa with the idea of eventually building a hotel in Apia. It bought two properties. One at Vaitele on which a warehouse was built and the other was the Tiafau Hotel on Mulinu’u Peninsula. The hotel was pulled down to make way for a new hotel but then problems struck.

It came when the HRPP became the government, and in the form of the refusal by the minister of Lands and Survey then, Sifuiva Sione, to allow the proposed reclamation seaward from the hotel site to build a car park and restaurant. Soon after, a dispute with the Nauru government ensued resulting in the Nauru guarantee being withdrawn. And by the late 1980s and after more disputes, Ansett had packed up and left, leaving the government to run Polynesian Airlines.

The government then put together a new management team headed by the Minister of Civil Aviation to do the job. They embarked on an ambitious plan, which led to the lease of three Boeing aircraft, and a fourth from Kuwait.

But by 1994, the airline was "dragging the country towards bankruptcy," warned the financial secretary, Sala Epa, in a letter to the then Minister of Finance Tuilaepa. At that point, some $50 million in debt had been incurred but the airline was generating nowhere near enough revenue to pay for it.

So, in June 1994, the old management was dropped and a new one was put in place. In doing so, the government formed three companies to run the airline: Polynesian Holdings (to pay the debt), Polynesian Ltd. to operate the company, and Polynesian Investment to sell assets or bag profits.

But even with those economic measures in place, the airline is suffering air sickness.

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