A chance weekend interview with Finance Minister Mark Brown led to the news the PM would not be available for an interview as the Cook Islands Party was chartering a flight to the Northern Cooks. She was quick to point out the need for independent media to be given an opportunity to follow and document the campaign and chat to people in our remote communities. Just hours before the flight was to leave, she got the call that a seat was available as one of the team had decided to fly direct on the commercial flights instead of the island hop to Manihiki.
I was beside myself with anticipation.
I had not been up north for almost 20 years, and had never seen Pukapuka, where my father was born, or Palmerston, where our vessel had berthed just outside the waters when I went on the Manuvai back in the late 80s - for some reason, we never landed. So I was keen to get back to Manihiki and see how things had progressed. Also- I had never seen for myself the election mood, so felt very lucky to get the chance.
The three islands in three days whistle-stop tour for the CIP campaign charter to the North comprised the Manihiki nomination, prime minister Henry Puna and finance Minister Mark Brown, along with campaign manager Nooroa ‘Soko’ Roi and Papa Takake Akatapuria, government representative for Tongareva, retiring Pukapuka MP Tekii and Mama Lazaro, and me..
The group got smaller along the way and then swelled again as we picked up an urgent medical referral to Rarotonga. Rolling with the changes is another part of Pa Enua living that helps people just become more flexible and open to the changes that life throws at you.
I had been to the north before, and with family ties to Pukapuka, Rakahanga and Manihiki it was very much a homecoming for me, so I felt at ease moving around while the CIP team did their pow-wows.
Where they did public gatherings I was there recording and noting the kinds of questions and topics people raised. The concerns of the north are more in keeping with their realities and everyday lives -people speak about tanks and water gathering because it’s a matter of survival; the debates on Raro about paying for supply are just not an issue for their realities.
The discussions around jobs are also different. On Rarotonga, there’s a focus on getting as much out of an hour as you can. Up north, it’s the gift of having wages coming into a household that sees families better off, better clothed, and with more to share.
Because communal sharing the responsibility, especially when it comes to churches and the power of faith leaders, is just so much stronger and a part of Northern identity.
Yes, they also talk about transport- shipping and air fares and freight costs, with the same ownership and gravity, because on their incomes they have, a visit to family members in New Zealand and in Australia is far, far more than a matter of simply getting on a plane. A family of four is likely to spend enough to pay for a vehicle or a deposit on an Auckland home by the time they save for travel and stopovers, and all the shopping they will do for those not travelling, and for home repairs and equipment, while they are away. It’s a major milestone, never a quick trip. “
I made a point of looking for the children, whether at school or play. Watching the women, who tended to be incredibly busy with craftwork and preparations for next month’s Te Maeva Nui, or preparing food for functions, and then singing their hearts out for every gathering with those soaring imene peroveta. I was reminded of how “world famous in the Cooks” those perepere talents are amongst our mamas in the north, especially in Tongareva.
One thing that was common from Pukapuka to Tongareva and Manihiki was the verbal jousting in our Maori language and northern dialects which gave edge, humour, and entertainment value to so much of the campaign mood.
There were lots of back and forth questions from the first night in Pukapuka that made me realise how important it is that our leaders keep the people informed about what they do - and stay open to all the questions that come their way.
The CIP team was a well-oiled machine in action: one to go through the party fundraising and financial position, and to thank people for all their efforts in supporting raffles which had allowed for the party to enjoy it’s ‘in-the-black’ status. Another to talk about what’s been achieved and delivered over the last four years and what the vision for the next period in government might look like.
Lots of detail, delivered with humour and insight, in plain Maori, of the country’s financial situation, government spending priorities - the what, where and how, and responses to the opposition messaging and campaign.
These are big questions, all of them, and for once the tangata rikiriki have the full and complete attention of their elected leaders, their party figureheads. Of course they are going to make the most of their moment.
“Each question relates to their incomes, their livelihoods, their aspirations, their challenges. They get answers, not promises to fix things or report back from base, and sometimes, not even popular responses when the minister or PM admits it’s an issue that’s not within their power to change. Every now and again, there’s laughter, or, as in the case of Pukapuka, a song or chant to keep the momentum going.
In Tongareva, the irony of the flight being met by Democratic candidate Wilkie Rasmussen and Independent candidate Robert Tapaitau - both getting there before CIP candidate Willie John, is a source of laughter, and used to inject humour into the welcome lunch at the island council open air venue.
By the time we get the ferry across to Tetautua village from Omoka, we are soaked in sea-spray but there’s enough wind and sun to dry us up for the welcome songs and service as we disembark. Anyone who’s been to the Pa Enua will appreciate that salted feel your skin and hair gets.
The barge crossing is also busy at the moment as families in Tetautua travel to Omoka for the practise sessions and preparation for Te Maeva Nui. There’s actually more excitement around that event than around the elections itself.
After nightfall I take my camera and walk round in search of the group. I catch sight of a small circle of families in a private home, a typical northern home which is more a shelter of memories and lived lives, open to the elements on most sides.
From where I sit, I am outside of the circle of listeners seated half in, half out of this home. These families have the full attention of the prime minister, who cuts a solitary figure in the circle of those seated around him, standing and explaining policy and plans, calling on input from the fiscal side as needed, their cups of tea long emptied, and the occasional child passing by or through the chairs to get from one lap to another.
It’s a photo-ready moment that drives home the isolation of this place, the lack of social media or TV or Radio access to the world of information and information about the world which seems to have no place here.
In this place and time, and throughout that Northern campaign, I am reminded so strongly that this moment, and any time our people get the ear of their leaders, is special. When an election campaign swings round, it’s even more so. It’s less about what politicians will be telling the voters, less about the numbers and the turnout and packed halls, and more about the personal times of connection and sharing. It’s a reminder that the talking tonight will be heard again and played back- to some extent, when it comes to June 14.
In that moment, facing a cardboard wall and ballot paper, it’s the memories our leaders have helped Cook Islanders make over the last four years which will shape which direction their voting paper will go when it leaves the confines of the ballot box.