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Lefter #26 ~ The Cook Islands

May 14, 2010 by emweb

Post colonial, or colonial post?

Atutaki is a picture-perfect, beautiful atoll not far from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. It’s part of the Cook Islands Group. The Cook Islands became a British ‘protectorate’ in 1888, at chiefly request out of fear of an armed French takeover (which had happened already to Tahiti) and this was accepted, but in 1900, Britain transferred administrative control to New Zealand.

In 1965, Cooks Islands’ residents chose self-government ‘in free association with New Zealand’.

But what does this mean?

The Cook Islands’ comprises fifteen islands spread over a considerable area of the South Pacific ocean. Somewhat oddly, since it’s not the closest of South Pacific islands to New Zealand, most Cook Islanders speak ‘Cook Islands’ Maori’, a language that sounds a lot like Maori, and in fact the two languages are mutually intelligible. They also speak excellent English.

Most of the Cook Islands are low coral atolls – a couple are either very sparsely inhabited or not inhabited at all – but Rarotonga in the Southern Group is a large, volcanic island and it’s the main administrative centre. It also has by far the largest amount of Cook Islands-based Cook Islanders on it: about 14-15,000.

About 75,000 Cook Islanders live elsewhere, most of them here – Cook Islanders have NZ passports. So apart from plundering their able workforce, New Zealand’s primary responsibility to the Cooks seems to be as a tourist destination and aid recipient.

And we’re supposed to defend the Cook Islands on request.

Rarotonga is bizarre in that it’s a big, hot, tropical, exotic-looking, island populated by people speaking great English. NZ institutions like banks work, and look, just as they do here. Indeed the currency is NZ with some additional, and distinctive, denominations and coins.

There are two public buses on Rarotonga and they just circle the island in different directions. I kid you not, they are actually signed ‘Clockwise’ and ‘Anticlockwise’ just in case you get confused.

It’s also weird in that there are abandoned and semi-collapsed buildings all over the place. Some tumble-down houses are actually still occupied by people who appear to be living in abject poverty (accept that delicious food grows pretty much unbidden, and all over the place). But you also see gracious and even grandiose homes that somehow look, somewhat unfortunately, like plantation owners’ homes – although I have no idea of their actual provenance.

There are other jarring sights – the massive Ministry of Justice, recently completed, is a lavish building that looks entirely out of place in the little (and main) town of Avarua on Rarotonga. It looks even more ridiculous when you find the prison – its fenced with four strands of barbed wire a nine-year-old could get through and indeed, someone told me the prisoners go home on weekends anyway, as the guards like to have the weekends off! (I don’t know if this is true.)

So why the massive, lavish new Ministry of Justice, exactly?

Take a short flight to Aitutaki (population about 2000) and you realise that the paradise that is Rarotonga was just an introduction, although Aututaki is very touristy and resorty. But Aututaki got hit badly by a powerful cyclone earlier in 2010, with gusts of up to 100 knots flattening buildings and trees.

In April, National MP Murray McCully flew to the Cooks ostensibly to inspect Aitutaki. New Zealand had pledged $5.5 million in cyclone recovery aid which was slow to be deployed. The visit coincided with a joint ministerial forum that was supposed to bring the Cooks government and NZ’s closer – the Cooks have been increasingly independent in foreign policy over the last decade or so. However, this forum was postponed or cancelled – for reasons unclear – just before the visit.

Meanwhile, Aitutaki mayor Tai Herman was being criticised in the CI News for releasing ‘aid’ money to people to work on their houses. Great, accept these people were friends and family of Herman’s (or potential voters) whose houses had either not been damaged, or were only lightly damaged, while badly damaged houses were sitting untouched.

Cook Islands officials expressed concern that the aid should be distributed to those who need it, but McCully stated he wasn’t there to meddle in Cook Islands’ politics.

So why was he there? Was his trip funded by part of that aid? How much did it cost?

It can easily look as if the Cooks has been treated as personal fiefdom by proxy for some NZ officials, who don’t seem to take any sort of hand with the Cooks’ notoriously troublesome governance – there have been scandals and crises galore over the last three or four decades, under the watch of several NZ governments in succession, including, of course, Labour.

After his visit to the stricken atoll, McCully was reported in the Cook Islands News as having enjoyed his visit. He said had been to the Cooks several times before. He said “We hope that you feel fortunate to be New Zealand citizens”!

He concluded an article in the Cook Islands News (April 9th, page 7) “This is a fantastic place – I say that officially and unofficially. Unofficially it is spoken for by my frequent personal visits which will only become more frequent as the ungrateful public of New Zealand tire of my services at some future point. I just want to say it’s great to be here.”

Well, better to get the government to pay for your holidays under the guise of official business, hey Murray? As it’s easy to imagine that February is simply too hot for visits – tourists avoid the Cooks in February. April is much nicer.

The Cook Islands are absolutely gorgeous, despite the fatuously cliché ‘Pacific’ resorts that have parasitically invested the nicest beaches.

The Cooks Islanders seem unfailingly polite and knowledgeable. The food is incredible, the swimming is unbelievable … But New Zealand’s official attitude to the Cooks makes me really uncomfortable. I can’t fathom it.

I fear New Zealand is doing Cook Islanders a disservice.

But I may be wrong.

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