It was the usual process marked by last-minute loading of goods, tearful goodbyes and passengers showing signs of anxiety at the prospect of the six or seven-day voyage ahead of them.
But it was some of the passengers who became a topic of discussion with some of us there. These were literally “imported voters” – people with just one reason in mind for returning to the home island and that is to qualify to vote in the 2018 general elections.
One of my uncles on the wharf, who has a somewhat infectious sense of humour, said to me, “Son, those people are going home for the elections, and don’t they look ferocious.”
Both of us giggled at the imagery he was conjuring. I guess, what he meant was, that these people were focused and determined to endure close to a year of being marooned on an island they abandoned decades ago for a better life in Australia and New Zealand.
In any event, we bid them farewell and wished them a safe trip home. For our own sense of being “noho o te henua” (people staying on the land) we assured ourselves that by the end of their first month there, these imported voters will start asking themselves, “Why did we leave behind the comfort of being able to stroll through shopping malls and eat whatever you like at food arcades?” Wishful thinking!
After all the final results were counted, the Cook Islands Party won the 2014 elections with a very slim majority. The chances of it losing that majority prompted a record number of petitions by the Democratic Party.
These petitions seemed plausible because the margins in the CIP victories were very slim and could easily have been overturned with court-ordered recounts. In the end this was not to be and the Democrats were officially destined for the Opposition benches in Parliament for the 2014 to 2018 term of government.
One of the more interesting petitions was that of Penrhyn Island where yours truly won by 10 votes on election night, but lost when 22 special votes were counted. These were the votes of Penrhyn Islanders normally resident in Australia who had become stranded on the island after one of the inter-island ships suffered engine problems. A group of about 50 Penrhyn people from the Sydney Cook Islands Christian Church Ekalesia were visiting the island over the Christmas and New Year break and in a bizarre sequence of events, they were unable to get transport back to Rarotonga. One part of the group managed to leave on one of Tapi Taio’s ships and failed to qualify for the Penrhyn constituency, but the remaining lot did not leave the island until April 2014 and they were then enrolled and cast their votes in advance and also by postal vote from Sydney.
The Rasmussen petition was based on the grounds that these people were normally or “ordinarily” resident in Australia, where they work, pay taxes, collect benefits, have homes, school their children and bury their dead Almost all of them have lived in Australia for more than 20 years, some 30 years. They even listed their addresses on their electoral forms as being in Australia. However those that were deemed to qualify had at one point in their lives, resided in the Cook Islands for a period of one year at least since birth.
The court dismissed the application on the basis the current eligibility law for people to vote in the Cook Islands as set out in the Electoral Act of 2004 was that “where a Cook Islander lays his head to sleep for three months is where that person can vote”. It does not matter whether that person has never worked in the Cook Islands or paid taxes here and that their contact with the Cook Islands has been minimal.
The implication of the court’s decision was further reaching than the simple logic it applied of a Cook Islander being entitled to vote in the constituency where they had been for the last three months.
For some, it harkened back to the infamous old days of fly-in voters. The fly-in voters were Cook Islanders who had been away from the Cook Islands for less than three years.
As detailed in Wikipedia and other online sources, general elections were held in the Cook Islands in September 1974 to elect 22 MPs to the Cook Islands parliament. The elections were won by the Cook Islands Party, with 14 seats and 63.6 per cent of the vote. The Democratic Party won eight seats and 36.4 per cent of the vote.
During the election the Democratic Party introduced “flying voters.” They chartered an Air Nauru Boeing 727 to fly voters from New Zealand to Rarotonga to vote. Voters paid their own fares, and the flights were open to all regardless of party affiliation.
The same tactic was copied by the government at the next election, though with public money. Politicians with access to great resources, even to the country’s treasury, funded hundreds of people to return home to the Cook Islands and cast their vote.
Both political parties, the Cook Islands Party and the Democratic Party made the most of the opportunity. The eventual outcome was tragic and rates as one of the biggest blights on our political history.
Cook Islands Party founder, Papa Albert Henry was convicted for misappropriation of public funds and his government was thrown out by the court, making way for Papa Tom Davis to lead a Democratic Party government.
Henry was also stripped of his knighthood and was never able to come back as a political force. In a face-saving gesture parliament posthumously pardoned Papa Arapati.
What then are we staring at with this new twist on “fly-in voters” that I will now refer to as “imported voters”?
Rumours are rife that incumbent Members of Parliaments (MPs) particularly in the outer islands, (more specifically in Penrhyn, Manihiki and Rakahanga), are importing voters. Questions must then be asked, as to who is paying for these voters’ expenses, and whether public funds are being used. The implications for these people and for government could be very serious.
Government must surely introduce an amendment to the Electoral Act to prevent exploitation of this court decision, because if it does not, then the old saying of “it takes two to tango,” will come to the fore.