And as we evolve, as we graduate from a developing country to developed status this defining moment will come with its own set of challenges and possibilities.
As we celebrated 54 years of internal self-government, we step closer as it were to questions of our status, our relationship with the world and each other and our relationship with New Zealand, the geo political world and the many international treaties, and agreements we have signed independently as a sovereign nation.
And as we navigate this evolution as New Zealand did from a colony under British rule and management, to its own transition to independence, is it reasonable to consider this question for ourselves? What does internal self-government look like tomorrow, in 20 years’ time, in 10 years’ time and how is this understood by our people and our government today?
My question is, did we hold onto a notion of citizenship that was not only out of reach then but also not experienced or expected in 1965, and if one is to measure this citizenship by way of education, access to health, access to travel or the ability of our servicemen to pensions or equal treatment under the law that contributed to a riot in Rarotonga, what privileges of New Zealand citizenship were our leaders then looking to?
In 1965, were our visionary leaders Albert Henry and then Sir Tom Davis, looking instead forward, to today, to the citizenship we now enjoy and celebrate, our ability to be Cook Islanders, and still enjoy the full benefits of our free association with New Zealand. Benefits alluded to at the Victory Theatre in Rarotonga on July 6, 1964, when Papa Arapati said that with integration “the good things will come slowly, but the bad things will come quickly”. Because it is this future vision of quality of life the aspired to, and we today acknowledge their vision, as we stand on their shoulders and who many others that contributed to this citizenship we celebrate and enjoy … e tu ki runga … e toou paku ivi.
This decision cannot be seen in simplistic terms because there were many complexities to 1964 and the Cook Islands that engaged with a New Zealand and United Nations that were pushing for change. A contributing factor to their defining decision, may have been unlike our neighbor Samoa who were ready for independence because their chiefly structures had remained intact and demonstrated today in the 47 matai MPs of the 40 that sit in their legislatures, where ours had been completely dismantled and we were instead under distant colonial rule.
New Zealand’s Premier Seddon’s treatment of the Cook Islands was one where he was clear our Te Koutu Nui had to be dismantled and stripped away leaving us for 54 years under the rule and reign of a colonial New Zealand that was neither benevolent nor cared much for its outlying colony, that they controlled, that they named and whose future they determined. This quiet dismantling of traditional structures, hierarchy and identity must have had an impact on our decision to steer away from independence when this arrived in 1964 and spoken of in United Nations reports in 1955 and 1965.
The Belshaw and Stace report in 1955, prompted by the United Nations push for countries to let go of their colonies, outlined to the New Zealand government and UN the dire state of health, education, infrastructure and a need for self-governance if the United Nations global aspirations for colonies would ever be achieved.
In May 1965, an amendment was tabled to defer consideration until alternatives to self-government had been “properly investigated and explained, and the wishes of the people determined by a referendum” but this was ignored and instead New Zealand’s preference and those leading change in the Cook Islands for free association would prevail.
We will never know what a referendum on the options available to the Cook Islands in 1965, would have been, but what is clear is that there was move towards free association and the inability of tribal structures or leadership to create momentum as was done in Samoa and the Mau movement, would not offer a vehicle for resistance if that was decided. For us as a people, independence would last be felt in 1887 and since then we have been under the rule, the protection, annexation and now free association, and still we grow and still we are evolving.
The underlying reality is that this “special relationship” rests upon three elements which Cook Islands communities remain unwilling to lose: New Zealand citizenship, New Zealand financial support, and membership of the New Zealand currency area. And New Zealand’s threats to withdraw any or all of these, as Helen Clark did in response to United Nations membership discussions with then Prime Minister Terepai Maoate, remain credible and effective deterrents to this being discussed again.
Nonetheless our relationship is special because it is dynamic, it is changing and shifting, developing and moving and the future and hat that looks like is very much still in our hands.
Our relationship with New Zealand is pivotal, its benefits are without question, but like our children, like our sons and daughters, there comes a time when they too must leave home and plot a course for themselves.
That may not be today, that may not be in our lifetime, but as the generation after us stands on our shoulders as we the one before, what is sure is that this day is coming.