- Cook Islands
On the eve of celebrating half a century of constitutional self-governing in the Cook Islands, the period in review was dominated by the aftermath of the July 2014 general election. This included nine court petitions, two by-elections, and one defection. The results saw the Cook Islands Party return to power with a one-seat majority to lead the country for the remainder of the four-year parliamentary term. Public voices were raised and rallied during the year under review. A key area of concern included marine resource management and purse-seine fishing. Along with preparations for the celebrations of fifty years of independence, the relationship of the Cook Islands with New Zealand came under scrutiny. Eyebrows were raised over the Cook Islands’ interest in pursuing United Nations (UN) membership. The portability of the New Zealand Superannuation for Cook Islander residents in New Zealand also stirred interest. Both of the latter issues highlighted the fact that the Cook Islands can certainly be heard but not necessarily heeded in the domestic and international policy spaces of its sovereign partner and colonial master, New Zealand.
Electoral uncertainty pervaded the year. In order to form a government, a political party needs 12 of the 24 parliamentary seats. The general election saw fifty-four candidates, including seven women, contest the twenty-four constituencies. The preliminary results had the Democratic Party ahead with 11 seats, the Cook Islands Party with 10 seats, and the One Cook Islands Party with 2 seats. The Tamarua seat of the island of Mangaia was tied.
Counting of special and postal votes saw the final results swing to give the Cook Islands Party 13 seats. The Democratic Party losses included the defeat of their leader, Wilkie Rasmussen from the island of Penrhyn. The Mitiaro Island seat was also tied.
Of course, matters did not end there, with nine petitions lodged in court. Three petitions were withdrawn, with the remaining heard by the court. Petition dismissals saw Nandi Glassie and first-timer Rose Toki Brown survive petitions alleging bribery. They took up office as Cook Islands Party representatives for the Island of Atiu (cin, 18 Sept 2014). The petition concerning the Manihiki seat held by Prime Minister Henry Puna was also dismissed following claims of bribery and unqualified voters (cin, 10 Sept 2015). The Tamarua seat petition based on voter ineligibility was proved. This enabled the seat to be secured by Tetangi Matapo as the third female Member of Parliament for the Democratic Party, following a recount. [End Page 204]
By this stage of the proceedings, Finance Minister Mark Brown called for electoral reforms, as a number of petitions were based on voter ineligibility. He advocated the “establishment of a fulltime electoral office and chief registrar” (Pacific Scoop, 28 Sept 2014). By October 2014, the Cook Islands Party held a one-seat majority as it awaited the outcome of the court action to decide on the Mitiaro draw and a Vaipae-Tautu petition.
The tied Mitiaro result of 50 votes each saw the Democratic Party first lodging in court a petition claiming bribery and treating in the run-up to the election and then withdrawing the petition. In November, this late withdrawal was successfully appealed by the Cook Islands Party. On hearing the matter, Chief Justice Thomas Weston deemed one voter ineligible. The subsequent recount saw long-serving Democratic Party member Tangata Vavia receive 50 votes, just ahead of Tuakeu Tangatapoto’s 49 votes. In December, High Court Judge Hugh Williams dismissed the Cook Islands Party challenge over the eligibility of three voters, thereby upholding the recent recount results. Not content to let this result lie, the Cook Islands Party unsuccessfully took the matter to the Court of Appeal in New Zealand, as one voter had chosen to leave Mitiaro for medical reasons (cin, 18 Feb 2015). Once all petitions had been heard in December, the Cook Islands Party had 11 seats, the Democratic Party had 10, One Cook Islands Party had 2 seats, and a by-election was ordered for the Aitutaki electorate of Vaipae-Tautu.
Sadly, February 2015 saw the unexpected passing of Democratic Party candidate Kete Ioane. In the midst of his...