The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 174-179
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Jon Tikivanotau M Jonassen
Pacific Islands Studies Program, Brigham Young University, Hawai'i
For the Cook Islands, the period July 2001 to June 2002 was dominated by continued population decline, unpopular political party switches by members of parliament, cabinet shuffles and reshuffles, dengue fever, flooding, ten-year high inflation, land controversies, and immigration concerns. Political events in the country's capital, Rarotonga, marked a year of major challenges for its democratically elected government, great political and reorganization disappointments, and a few guarded economic successes.
The country's two banks, Cook Islands Savings Bank and Cook Islands Development Bank, merged as the Bank of the Cook Islands (CIN, 2 July 2001, 1), and welcomed its first customer on 4 August 2001. As the new bank became an important arm of government for many financial transactions, some public servants increasingly complained of being on the same annual salary of NZ$11,000 for ten years. They argued that disparities within the public service reflected a fundamentally unfair system. Cook Islanders generally observed that too much was being paid to heads of ministries, whose salaries ranged between NZ$45,000 and NZ$80,000 a year. Public Service Commissioner Jonah Tisam received little support when he pointed out that no public servant was overpaid; rather, those on the lower scales were being underpaid (CIN, 3 July 2001, 1). Considering that inflation in the small nation was hitting a ten-year high, government workers who were generally on a lower scale felt most of the pinch. The cost of a loaf of sliced white bread was reported as rising (in NZ dollars) from $2.80 to $4.20, and French bread sticks from $1.20 to $2.40 (CIN, 9 Feb 2002, 1). Economists predicted that prices would rise even further, while describing the government's B rating by Standard & Poor as meaning that the country's economic outlook was fair (CIN, 8 Sept 2001, 1).
Open criticism of the public service compensation system continued throughout the year and extended to the superannuation system, which needed much improvement. By contrast, the country's parliamentary superannuation system was well established and overgenerous despite a parliamentary select committee's report calling for an urgent overhaul of former parliamentarians' superannuation payments because of the cost to the country. The government matches the parliamentarians' contribution of 10 percent from salary, but payout eligibility occurs after only eight years of continued service. This contrasts starkly with the much longer service required in the public service or private sector. The parliamentarian scheme alone cost the government NZ$525,000 in the 2001-2002 financial [End Page 174] year. Other costs reflected parliament and government's continued appointment of assistant ministers under the new, disguised title of "undersecretary." For a small country, there were clearly too many parliamentary representatives and too many cabinet ministers, and certainly there was no need for assistant ministers. Although the general public was convinced of this, politicians seemed oblivious to their concerns.
The public outcry about politicians fell on deaf ears. Indeed, cabinet even contemplated increasing the number of ministers to 9, which meant that out of a full parliament of 25 members, 18 (or 72 percent) of the House would be either ministers or assistant (undersecretary) ministers. Even the current 6 cabinet members (48 percent of the House) must be among the highest in the world relative to the size of the legislature and the population as a whole. Apparently the proposed change could not be justified without infringing on the responsibilities of senior administrative department heads.
Proposals such as this seem to the public to disguise crude bids for increased salaries and extensive travel privileges; free use of government vehicles, telephones, furnished houses; as well as free use of government laborers, and the opportunity to offer work opportunities to constituent supporters. The fact that most ministries were reported to have failed to file legally required reports to parliament during the year supported a general sense of their inefficiency and lack of accountability. Cook Islanders are also constantly reminded of the nation...