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New book gives insights into Cook Islands politics

Saturday May 14, 2016 Written by Published in Weekend
Former CI News political reporter Phillipa Webb contributed a chapter to the new book Pacifi c Ways. 16042936 Former CI News political reporter Phillipa Webb contributed a chapter to the new book Pacifi c Ways. 16042936

Former Cook Islands News political reporter Phillipa Webb has written the chapter on Cook Islands government and politics for a new book, Pacific Ways, just published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand.


The new book about politics in the Pacific provides insights about 27 Pacific Island countries and territories.

Edited by Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Stephen Levine, who has commented on matters relating to the Cook Islands in the past, the book includes contributions from Pacific scholars from across the region.

The book covers all regions – Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, and all countries, irrespective of their size or political status. The contents mirror the diversity of the Pacific, with chapters about an array of island nations whose politics receive relatively little media or scholarly attention.

Originally published in 2009, this second edition of Pacific Ways has been written by an almost entirely new team of authors, offering their own perspectives on the Pacific’s problems and prospects. The book includes a specially commissioned colour map of the entire Pacific Islands region, providing a visual reference point for each of the states and territories.

Levine says the overall aim of this new edition of Pacific Ways is to provide a clear, thoughtful, up-to-date account of the politics, elections, political parties and systems of government in every Pacific Island nation and territory.

He says that Webb’s position as a political reporter for Cook Islands News, as well as her research skills and overall professionalism, made her the obvious choice to be the contributor to the second edition of this book.

“Phillipa’s Cook Islands chapter draws on her experience with Cook Islands News,” Levine says.

“She was reporting for the paper during the 2014 Cook Islands general election, her stories in the paper also appearing online through the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Report daily summaries of news around the Pacific.

“Her chapter analyses the 2014 election (and its aftermath) at length, discussing the initial results, the election petitions, court rulings, the Vaipae-Tautu by-election, and the decision by Democratic Party MP Albert Nicholas to join the Cook Islands Party government.

“She also discusses the April 2015 Aitutaki referendum on Sunday flights to the island. Her discussion is given greater depth, as an academic contribution, by her review of earlier referendums held in the Cook Islands, including ones asking Cook Islanders to vote on whether to change the country’s name, its flag and the national anthem; whether elections should be held every five years or every four; and whether the number of MPs should be reduced.”

Levine says the Cook Islands chapter also gives attention to the country’s links with the wider world, and particularly with New Zealand.

“The background to the New Zealand connection, from missionaries’ visits to British government involvement through to eventual New Zealand annexation, leads on to the Cook Islands’ choice of self-government in “free association,” preserving special ties including, most importantly, New Zealand citizenship.

“Phillipa’s chapter concludes with another topic that she reported on when with Cook Islands News, namely, Prime Minister Henry Puna’s controversial suggestion, opposed by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, that the Cook Islands consider enhancing its international profile through an application for United Nations membership.”

As with the other chapters in Pacific Ways, the informative Cook Islands chapter includes detail about the country’s constitution, its system of government, cabinet, parliament, the judiciary, elections, political parties, local politics – as well as suggestions for political reform.

Webb begins her chapter by observing that the Cook Islands is “a successful, well-recognised tourist destination,” but at the same time notes that more serious information about the island – whether it is independent; who governs it; what are its problems; what are its future prospects, is much less widely available.

It was to address this problem to make the Cook Islands’ government, society and politics (always interesting) better known – that Phillipa’s chapter was dedicated, says Levine.

It also includes chapters on other territories with strong ties to New Zealand. The Niue chapter is by Salote Talagi, a Victoria University graduate from Niue who, as an intern in the New Zealand Parliament in 2015, produced a video on Niue’s language (with participation by New Zealand Members of Parliament, speaking Niuean) for New Zealand’s Niue Language Week.

A theme of the Niue chapter is the idea of political reform, with more opportunities for political engagement by the island’s younger generation particularly emphasised.

The chapter on Tokelau, by Kelihiano Kalolo – former head of Tokelau’s government and Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific – draws attention to the territory’s strong ties to New Zealand and the failure of two UN referendums to move Tokelauans to accept a different political status. The chapter on Samoa, by Iati Iati (a lecturer at the University of Otago), pays strong attention to Samoa’s traditions and the way in which these have been retained even as a Western-influenced political system, influenced by New Zealand, has been introduced.

The “free association” model pioneered by the Cook Islands and New Zealand is also a feature of chapters looking at politics in the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (with the unity of the latter jeopardised by a secessionist movement in one of the FSM’s four states). Uncertainty about the best political status model for other territories linked to the United States – American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands – is also an element when considering the future of these territories.

Likewise, the chapters on the territories linked to France: French Polynesia, New Caledonia and (to a lesser extent) Wallis and Futuna, look at the absence of unity (among people and the parties they vote for) about the relationship with France and the best political future for each of them.

The cover of Pacific Ways shows an idyllic island scene, unspoiled: white sands, palm trees, beautiful waters. Elsewhere in the Pacific – in tother island countries covered in the book including Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru and Tonga, the idea of the Pacific as a “tropical paradise” is complicated by the reality of countries and territories which have “politics” – conflicts and problems – just as people everywhere else do, Levine says.

“The book also includes chapters focusing on West Papua, in which a low-level insurgency against Indonesian rule continues with no sign of any end in sight, and on Timor-Leste (East Timor), where Indonesian control eventually did come to an end.

“Smaller territories are also covered in the book: Pitcairn, with its small population (around 50 people) and concerns about the island’s viability (including weak economic prospects and recurrent sexual abuse scandals); and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), with the indigenous population increasingly dissatisfied with ongoing rule by Chile.”

As Pacific Ways includes chapters on all Pacific Islands Forum members there are also authoritative accounts of politics and government in Australia and New Zealand, the latter chapter being written by Levine (whose most recent book, before this one, was Moments of Truth, about New Zealand’s 2014 election).

As for the title of the book, Levine says that at one time it was argued that there was a “Pacific way” of dealing with issues of government and politics. Now, he says, the reality is that there are “Pacific ways,” with the 27 Pacific countries and territories displaying many different ways of responding to the fundamental problems, common to all nations, of how a society is to be organised for the purposes of responsive, representative government.

“Part of that diversity is to be found in the unique experience, well chronicled by Webb, of politics and government in the Cook Islands during the 50+ years of constitutional self-government.”


Pacific Ways is available as a paperback ($40) from Victoria University Press (http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/ or email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) and as an e-book ($19.95) (https://mebooks.co.nz/victoria-university-press

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