Cook Islanders get ready to go to the polls – choice of 4 parties, movement

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown ... facing a shakeup in the elections? Image: Sprep/Cook Islands govt/RNZ

By Don Wiseman, RNZ Pacific senior journalist

Cook Islanders go to the polls tomorrow to choose a new 24 member Parliament.

Voters will have four parties — and a movement calling for a collegial approach to government — to choose from.

Cook Islands politics has been dominated for years by the Cook Islands Party led by the current Prime Minister Mark Brown — a man who is very confident of holding on to power.

He believes his government has done a very good job keeping the country together in very trying circumstances over the past two or so years.

There are 69 candidates in all contesting the poll, and one, marine scientist Teina Rongo, hopes this election will be third time lucky for him.

Rongo wants to be in Parliament to correct what he sees as faults in the country’s approach to the environment and education.

He said the sectors are interconnected with the education system not properly reflecting Cook Islands Māori values.

‘Disconnected from environment’
“We are disconnected from our environment and I think part of the reason is because we have an education system or a curriculum that does not teach these things to our children,” he said.

“We have a more New Zealand-based curriculum than a Cook Islands one that teaches in the context of the Cook Islands.”

Te Tuhi Kelly moved to the Cooks some years ago and recently got permanent residency.

He has set up his own political party, the Progressive Party, for which he is the only candidate standing.

A human resources specialist, he said he was motivated to stand by what he saw as corruption in government and nepotism.

“I don’t have any issues around putting nieces, nephews, uncles, cousins and aunties into roles, as long as they can do it and as long as they can perform,” he said.

Teina Bishop is a veteran in Cook Islands politics and he said what he has learned is party politics is very divisive and that’s why his group is styled as a movement.

Collegial approach
He wants the One Cook Islands Movement to foster a more collegial approach to politics, bringing everyone together.

He agreed it meant they were essentially independents, “an independent movement with a purpose”.

Bishop said it is very rare for one party to win a clear majority, so the One Cook Islands Movement candidates, if elected, were well placed to be in government.

The new party in the contest this year is the United Party, and uniting the country is their mantra.

Leader Teariki Heather said the way to do this was by investing in the people, and not spending on buildings that were unnecessary — such as, he said, cyclone shelters on islands that did not experience cyclones.

He envisages slashing the wages MPs get by 45 percent while increasing the minimum wages by 25 percent in Rarotonga and more in the outer islands.

Prices for imported foods have soared, with cartons of chicken nearly doubling in price in Rarotonga and double that again in the Pa Enua.

The Cook Islands Parliament
The Cook Islands Parliament … 69 candidates contesting 24 seats. Image: Cook Islands govt/RNZ

Minimum wage increase
“So our plan is to increase the minimum wage and that will hopefully keep our people there, but also the increase in the cost of living [needs] to be more affordable for them,” he said.

United can also boast former New Zealand netball legend Margaret Matenga as one of its 17 candidates.

Cook Islands elections have typically been contests between the Cook Islands Party and the Democrats, although this time round this could well be shaken up by the newcomers.

Democrats deputy leader William “Smiley” Heather is another claiming Mark Brown’s government is ignoring the plight of the people who are struggling to cope with the soaring cost of living.

He said his party would redirect money that he said the government was putting towards development on Rarotonga.

“We believe the previous government is looking to build all these new buildings, $60 million — why are we spending money on that when our people are suffering, running out of money,” William Heather said.

The Cook Islands Parliament in session
The Cook Islands Parliament in session. Image: Phillipa Webb/Cook Islands News/RNZ

Pandemic challenge
Mark Brown replaced Henry Puna as Prime Minister just before covid-19 hit, so this will be the first time he has led the party into an election.

He said the pandemic had been one of the most testing times, especially given the reliance on tourism, but his Cook Islands Party had handled it successfully.

Brown dismissed criticism of the way government was spending as unfounded.

He said a lot of their focus has been on those who had needed support through this time, “we put out a big package on covid economic support for over a two-year period, now we are focussing on recovery, bearing in mind that we are coming back from a contracted economy.”

The Cook Islands Party is promising small increases in the pension and the minimum wage.

The Electoral Office said all results should be available within several hours of the close.

  • Voting booths open at 9am on August 1 — Tuesday New Zealand time — closing at 6pm.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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