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Some thoughts on ‘independence’

Monday May 15, 2017 Written by Published in Weekend
Albert Henry speaks outside the Government Administration Block in Avarua in 1965. Seated behind him is the last Resident Commissioner of the Cook Islands, Mr AO Dare, and the Governor General of New Zealand Sir Bernard Fergusson and Lady Fergusson. PHOTOS: Howard Henry collection. 17051231 Albert Henry speaks outside the Government Administration Block in Avarua in 1965. Seated behind him is the last Resident Commissioner of the Cook Islands, Mr AO Dare, and the Governor General of New Zealand Sir Bernard Fergusson and Lady Fergusson. PHOTOS: Howard Henry collection. 17051231

Papa T Williams is a Cook Island Maori descended from Rakahanga and Manihiki Islands, from the Northern Group of the Cook Islands. His mother is a New Zealand Maori descended from Ngapuhi, Nga- tiwhatua, and Waikato Maori.

He says he also has American, English and Portugese DNA, “courtesy of Pakeha/Maori who in the 1700s were adopted/enslaved by Maori chieftains, marrying their daughters/womenfolk, and happily donating their DNA to our wahine”.  Williams’ secondary education at Auckland Boys Grammar School (1974-1978), Mt Eden, Auckland and his tertiary education was at Manukau Institute of Technology (1979-1981) Otara, South Auckland. He has a Trade Certificate in the meat industry and is a pearl consultant with 25 years’ experience in the Cook Islands pearl industry. Williams is now researching material to write a book and a film script. This article is his reply to an earlier feature published in CI News titled “Sovereignty: free association with NZ – or independence”, written by Evelyn Marsters, a New Zealander born in New Zealand of Cook Islands parentage, but who now lives in Berlin, Germany.


On April 15, CI News published an article headlined, “Sovereignty: free association with NZ- or independence?”

It was written by consultant and writer Evelyn Marsters who was born in New Zealand of Cook Islands parentage, but now lives and works in Germany.

To provide some background, the inaugural free association and self-government arrangement between the Cook Islands and New Zealand was initiated on December 14, 1960, when the United Nations sanctioned a ground-breaking and innovative resolution called, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”

The original and detailed technicalities of how this most opportune taonga or gift from the United Nations actually came about, in the form of a history-making initiative sanctioned by resolution, was a catalyst for saving the nation.

And in the early 1960s members of the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly cleverly used it to forever secure for their people guaranteed New Zealand citizenship, protection for its people and its EEZ, and a more secure economic future for their resources, its people and the country.

This tiny island nation which, during the post-early 1900s had been suffering severe economic deprivation and virtual poverty, was able to quickly grasp this opportunity and position itself with the full support of New Zealand, to guarantee New Zealand citizenship for its citizens (their main priority), and extend them self-government in their own right. Unbeknown to them, they also initiated a new governing dynamic, which has become the envy of many other island nations around the world.

The United Nations’ push for decolonisation globally during the 1960s, offered a range of options for countries such as the Cook Islands, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), French Polynesia, New Caledonia, etc.

The options offered to the Cook Islands were:

1. Full independence

2. Full integration with New Zealand

3. Membership with a “Polynesian Federation”, which was non-existent

4. Full internal self-government.

In hindsight, if the UN could have applied a “one template fits all” with the possible inclusion of a hypothetical Cook Islands-type option with the same terms-of free association, self-government and guaranteed New Zealand citizenship, many other island nations would have also embraced this option.

And had that happened, the world would have been a much different place today.

Our Legislative Members wisely negotiated free association, self-government and guaranteed New Zealand citizenship. This arrangement remains the envy of countries the world over. Where else in the world do people have the choice of living in three countries (Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia)?

Colonial hardship, moving forward

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Cook Islands “...had consistently sought annexation to “Queen Victoria” and Great Britain...but what they got was annexation to New Zealand instead”, resulting in 60 years of New Zealand-imposed colonial administration rule. A succession of Resident Commissioners, most certainly contributed to an economic roller-coaster ride for all. During the years of the “Great Depression”, on Rarotonga in particular, this created widespread poverty and extreme hardship such as the islanders had never known before.

Had it not been for the foresight of those canny but rather clever Cook Islands legislators, the people of the Cook Islands would eventually have also been required to apply for a visa to gain access to New Zealand and Australia. In fact, that is currently the case with some of our neighbours such as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, French Polynesia and Hawaii,

These days, all Pacific Islands countries other than the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are subject to ever more restrictive immigration rules so people require some form of visa documentation in addition to their passports, should they be travelling to New Zealand and Australia.

Transnational Cook Islanders!

Many Cook Islands families took advantage of the opportunity and travelled to New Zealand to start their lives anew. Most travelled for reasons to do with health, education and employment.

Further exacerbating the outflow of Cook Islanders to New Zealand was the completion of the new international airport on Rarotonga, built with the help of New Zealand engineering expertise and funding. Its completion allowed many to leave for greener pastures abroad, the majority never to return.

Those who moved permanently to New Zealand for reasons of health, employment, education, better opportunities and a more secure future were only able to do so as a result of our unique arrangement with New Zealand.

The fact that more than 80,000 Cook Islanders now reside and work in New Zealand and Australia, is proof of how many of our people fully embraced our special relationship.

Obviously, these transnational Kiwi/Cook Islanders live and reside in either New Zealand or Australia, paying mortgages, rents, rates, etc, and contributing to the local economy. They work and pay their taxes in their chosen country and their taxes pay for the infrastructure they use, health, education, defence forces, pensions, etc. They also have the privilege of voting and taking part in referendums.

Back home in the Cook Islands, we have a population of around 15,000 and the vote we cast here, impacts on our own nation’s affairs and no-one else’s.

To my mind, if Cook Islanders living in New Zealand believe they are entitled to a say in any dialogue on Cook Islands independence, they are wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to say they must keep their noses out of our business.

And as far as any potential independence issue in the future goes, that will be decided by resident voters permanently living here in the Cook Islands, where the vast majority wish to retain their New Zealand citizenship.

“Transnational” Cook Islands communities, shouldn’t have a say unless they live here. Did for example, the Scottish independence vote include people of Scots heritage living abroad? No, it didn’t!” a local resident wrote in a letter to CI News when the issue was widely discussed in 2015.

Puna’s unpopular UN ambitions

Back in April 2015, Colin Tukuitonga, head of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), was interviewed by weekly magazine The New Zealand Listener. The interview was printed in the May 8, 2015 issue.

In the article, Tuitonga recounted a conversation he had with Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna: “He said, ‘Do you know, I am actually thinking seriously of giving up the New Zealand citizenship, the New Zealand passport, because it’s really hampering their opportunities. The message is the same from other parts of the Pacific.

“We want to look elsewhere, we can’t just simply continue to rely on Wellington’.”

Many people were outraged by Puna’s comments. Because if the Cook Islands wants United Nations membership, the constitutional relationship, including the current shared citizenship with New Zealand will need to change.

The issue of UN membership has been simmering since a story about the Cook Islands’ alleged push for independence was published on New Zealand news website STUFF in May 2015.

The story prompted huge reaction from Cook Islanders who were outraged that Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna would even think about giving up island residents’ rights to New Zealand citizenship.

“In 2015, Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna reopened the conversation regarding the country’s aspirations for United Nations membership...the different standpoints on this issue illustrate an ongoing tension between the ties that bind the Cook Islands to New Zealand, and its emerging position on the global stage,” a CI News story said at the time.

“So it seems Cook Islands PM Puna is still looking at his United Nations options, irrespective of the fact that many Cook Islanders do not support his vision.

“Former New Zealand prime minister John Key made clear New Zealand’s position should Puna persist with his United Nations ambition.”

New Zealand made it clear long ago that the price of full independence for the Cook Islands is giving up New Zealand citizenship. Prime Minister Key has again reminded our PM of this. Legal arguments aside, the PM and Finance minister Brown’s political blunder is there for all to see. Without consulting with the people of the Cook Islands, they have attempted to set off on a path they want. The trouble is no-one else wants to go there.

Since the Listener story was first published, the prime minister has back-pedalled as fast as he can on so-called “independence” but illogically, in my opinion, still maintains the fantasy of UN membership:

“Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna is not the first politician to raise the issue of United Nations membership with the “Big Boys,” wrote another CI News reader in a letter to the editor. 

“The idea of Cook Islands membership of the United Nations is not a new idea and goes back at least 30 years. When we were advised about the downside of shared citizenship, that we could not have two sets of New Zealand citizens sharing separate seats at the United Nations, we accepted it”.

“We are already full or associate members of a number of United Nations bodies - isn’t that enough?

Get off your horse, Henry, and stick to the Pacific Forum.”

Although the vast majority of Cook Islanders wish to maintain the status quo as New Zealand citizens, there are others who, for their own reasons, actually support Puna’s stance. Perhaps there is another agenda...who knows?

“As for concerns that we may lose our New Zealand citizenship, so what?” wrote island resident Tim Tepaki in another letter to the newspaper.

“The worst that could happen is we have dual citizenship and carry New Zealand and Cook Islands passports, like we do with our driver’s licences.

“And if New Zealand wants to be the bad guy and revoke our New Zealand passports, let’s revoke PR and indiginise the assets of colonists from New Zealand in retaliation. Don’t worry it’s not going to happen,”

 It is an indisputable fact that Cook Islanders have little interest in United Nations membership, especially if it means giving up our New Zealand citizenship.

 “Our Legislative Assembly fought long and hard to secure for her people, an iron-clad guarantee; that the prime minister remains persistent for seemingly personal gain and not for the peoples benefit, is sheer and absolute folly!” an anonymous writer observed in a letter to CI News.

“One only has to look at the likes of small island countries in the Pacific such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru, whose standard of living is but a fraction of ours. As Cook Islanders, we are truly blessed in that we have New Zealand passports and can therefore travel and work freely in both Australia and New Zealand.

“No one government or person has the right to take this away from us. Sadly, however, it would appear that the PM’s firm stance on the UN membership issue merely reaffirms what many Cook Islanders believe- that PM Puna is desperately attempting to set himself up with a plum job in New York at the UN.”

Leon Gotz and the Legislative Assembly

In July, 1962, New Zealand’s Minister of Island Territories, Leon (later Sir Leon) Gotz, visited Rarotonga to discuss the four political options that the New Zealand Government had formulated, regards the political structure of the Cook Islands, as per the United Nations’ 1960 sanctioned resolution:  “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”. As a result of this mutual cooperation between Gotz and the Legislative Assembly, the new Cook Islands Political Structure is born - Free Association, Self-Government and Guaranteed New Zealand Citizenship, for the Cook Islands peoples, wrote Howard Henry in The Rise and Rise of the Cook Islands Party. 

“...the full Legislative Assembly reconvened along with Leon Gotz and the New Zealand expatriates, at which point the Minister of Island Territories was told the greatest concern to all elected members of the Legislative Assembly was New Zealand citizenship...and expressed the view that this was the prevailing opinion amongst the overall Cook Islands community as well. Leon Gotz took the initiative,”

“He pointed out that under the full self-government option, the Cook Islands people would retain New Zealand citizenship as given to them by the NZ Citizenship Act 1948 - his guarantee - there would be no change.”

Mass emigration of Cook Islanders to NZ.

Now that the Cook Islands had accepted and embraced this new political structure of self-government in free association with New Zealand, plus having received guaranteed New Zealand citizenship for its people, Cook Islanders began leaving Rarotonga for the bright lights of New Zealand, and they steadily continued their outward journey, year after year.

Today, the population in the Cook Islands is some 15,000, while it is said that there are around 80,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand.

Many Cook Islands emigrants have done very well for themselves in New Zealand and have successful careers. Some are homeowners with well-educated children and there are plenty of young adults among the long-term residents.

It is obvious many believe they still have a say in the future of the Cook Islands. But don’t bother fooling yourselves, because in my opinion, you don’t have any sort of a say at all!

You 80,000 plus Kiwi/ Cook Islanders, together with the rest of the 4.5 million Kiwis in Aotearoa, hold the future of that country, together with its destiny, in your hands.

We Cookies over here in the Cook Islands, have no right to interfere in your nation’s affairs. It’s New Zealand’s sovereign business, period!

So do us 15,000 Cookies a favour.

Don’t convince yourselves you have a right to meddle in our affairs.

Editor’s note: a full list of sources used in this article is available on request: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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