Norman George: Roller-coaster ride to Cooks’ modern self-reliant economy

Monday August 12, 2019 Written by Published in Opinion
Norman George. Norman George.

In 1978 when Sir Thomas Davis’ Democratic Party took over government, there were some odd government structures that remained under New Zealand government control. The hairy hands of colonialism had to be amputated.

Papa Tom rebuilt our economy from the socialist approach of the former Cook Islands Party government to a market economy based on free enterprise. The turnover tax (now VAT) was introduced by Papa Tom.

Exports of paw paw, bananas and fresh vegetables by air-freight and sea boomed. “Self-reliance” was Papa Tom’s catch phrase.

There was a clear shift away from the welfare-dependent economy, to one of a growth freemarket economy. But as with all enterprising endeavors, a hurdler often kicks the hurdle and tumbles over.

We took over the orange and pineapple juice factory that marketed the highly popular Raro Juice products in New Zealand. A Dunedin-based business called Greggs used to own and operate the factory.

Papa Tom and the Demo government made a fatal mistake: they failed to negotiate to buy back the “Raro” brand. Greggs carried on using the brand.

We sold the same juice under a new label, Captain Cook Juice. It was a marketing disaster. No one in New Zealand knew what it was. Although the same juice they used to love under the “Raro” label was inside the cans, no one bought it.

Sales failed and the whole juicing factory folded. With it followed our citrus, pineapple and banana industry.

The Cook Islands developed its own shipping industry. Outer island airports were constructed. Papa Tom experimented with a Cook Islands International Airline in a joint venture with Ansett Airline of Australia, but it failed when Ansett went broke.  

The Demos introduced the off-shore tax haven industry. It benefited largely New Zealand businesses and bankers. It soured our relationship with New Zealand, who can blame them?

Papa Tom had a bad falling out with New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange over the ban on US nuclear warships.

He told Lange that New Zealand cannot defend the Cook Islands. Lange countered by ordering the biggest armed forces military exercise in Rarotonga and Aitutaki. It involved the Air Force using Skyhawk fighter jets, the Navy and the Army too. It was a great success!

Prime Minister Lange tried to push us into full independence. I was with Papa Tom. I knew Lange when I was a law student. He had a media release already drafted about us going independent.

I stopped it. I advised Prime Minister Lange that our people are required to hold a national referendum to decide the issue. I advised him our people will never accept it!

Papa Tom’s tenure ended abruptly, when the Demo caucus voted him out in a no confidence motion. I was in Samoa when the plot was hatched, I arrived back too late!

The problem arose when he cancelled the budget for the Mangaia pineapple industry. The Mangaia MPs at the time rebelled and inspired the move.

To his credit, Sir Thomas Davis laid the foundations for our economic prosperity: we don’t realise how wealthy we are, compared to larger countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

The tourism industry grew and our economy grew until we no longer need New Zealand budgetary aid. We do have project aid for our infrastructure.

I was Papa Tom’s major domo, the fix it man. I spent many hours drinking whisky (chivas regal) and red wine over dinner with him. I loved and made fun of his American accent, especially when he started singing. Whenever I complimented him for the good time we were having, he would always say “stick around!”

He was charming, extremely clever, a patriotic Rarotongan Cook Islander with the title of Pa Tuterangi Tane.

We miss you Papa Tom, rest in peace,

Kua rava teia, “Stick Around!”

Ka Kite     

-Norman George

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