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The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 146-153

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Cook Islands

Jon Tikivanotau M Jonassen
Department of Political Science, Brigham Young University, Hawai'i

The period under review was characterized by a worrying decline in population, regression in the ordinary Cook Islander's purchasing power, lack of confidence in members of Parliament and cabinet, continued public pressure for political reform, and a general deterioration in work and leadership ethics. Land controversies and government-created jobs engrossed the attention of leaders, a few of whom tended to abuse their status in order to advance family interests. Ironically, while foreign workers entered the country to take up promised employment, the local population declined, primarily due to lack of employment. Even as many locals expressed deep concern at the sudden surge of new immigrants, especially from Asia (Thailand, Philippines, India, and Pakistan, in particular), Prime Minister Dr Robert Woonton declared that locals must be able to adapt to change. He argued that "new immigrants are a natural outgrowth of a developing nation" (informal statement to students from Brigham Young University, Hawai'i, visiting Rarotonga, June 2003).

The review period began with former Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand Wilkie Rasmussen winning a by-election in Penrhyn against standing member and former Police Commissioner Tepure Tapaitau in July 2002. Only seven votes separated the two as Rasmussen won with a total of 112 votes (CIN, 2 Jul 2002, 1). The period ended with the unexpected death of Maria Heather, member of Parliament for Ruaau, who died suddenly in June 2003 after a short illness. This created the need for a by-election only months before an expected general election. In between the two by-elections, the controversy over cabinet size and membership persisted. By July 2002, government was pushing for an extra minister for cabinet, increasing the numbers to seven (CIN, 13 Jul 2002, 1). Although the government remained undeterred by the NZ$158,000 estimated cost for this move, there was resistance from the general public (CIN, 30 Oct 2002, 1).

While Prime Minister Woonton was heavily criticized for taking his spouse on long, expensive, overseas trips (CIN, 26 Jul 2002, 1), members of Parliament in general were accused of "not giving their constituencies value for money" and were occasionally pressured to vacate (CIN, 26 Oct 2002, 1). Constant cabinet reshuffles and rumors of reshuffles added fuel to the fire. In November 2002 Cabinet Minister Norman George was sacked —again (CIN, 8 Nov 2002, 1). Soon after, rumors emerged of a new coalition government, the sixth since the 1999 general election (CIN, 12 Nov 2002, 1). Within a month, the portfolios were reshuffled again (CIN, 22 [End Page 146] Nov 2002, 1). Then three months later, at the end of January 2003, TangataVavia and Terepai Maoate were sworn in as new government ministers, while Sir Geoffrey Henry and Tom Marsters were sacked by Prime Minister Woonton (CIN, 31 Jan 2003, 1).

An increasingly vocal group of citizens for political change—known as the GPC—gained momentum as a result of constant government changes and perceived inefficiency. They called for an early election (CIN, 10 Dec 2002, 1), and pushed for political reform on behalf of many concerned citizens (CIN, 12 Nov 2002, 1). Some 2,000 people signed a petition calling for change (CIN, 29 Mar 2003, 1), including the abolishment of the overseas seat in Parliament. However, it was generally understood that this would reduce the total seats to an even twenty-four, increasing the possibility of a hung parliament. Subsequently, there was also pressure to eliminate the constituency of Tamarua in Mangaia Island, which has the smallest population of any constituency in the country.

By June 2003, only the overseas seat had been abolished, with advocates arguing that those who leave the Cook Islands no longer pay taxes. The legitimate argument that Cook Islanders overseas contribute far more to the Cook Islands than the cost of maintaining the seat was lost in the general furor over a variety of MP actions that have been perceived negatively by most Cook Islands voters (CIN, 15 Nov 2002, 1).

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