When Iaveta Short finished the first draft of his new book False Start in Paradise he realised, “this is not a good story”.
The book itself is a brilliant read – it’s informative, eloquent and in some parts, entertaining too.
But it’s not the story many would want to be reminded of, especially those who have held power for most of the past 50 years of Cook Islands self-governance from New Zealand.
“I didn’t know when I started it, when you get to the end that’s when you look back and I said ‘Oh my God this is disaster after disaster after disaster’,” says Short.
“But I think the truth ought to be told, it can’t be truth if you cover it up.”
False Start in Paradise is an attempt to record many of the events and people who contributed to the “enthralling, difficult and politically turbulent period in the short life of a tiny island democracy”.
It unravels decades of political see-sawing – from enigmatic Sir Albert Henry’s “attempt to build a self-serving empire, manipulate the political system and use government’s fund to stay in power” to Sir Tom Davis guiding the Cook Islands into a “liberal, free market, open economy”.
Short, the first Cook Islander to graduate with a law degree from Auckland University, had a bird’s eye view of the turbulent periods following self-government in 1965. He was also a former Cabinet minister in the Sir Tom Davis government and High Commissioner for Cook Islands in Wellington.
“The story about the domination of our people in the last 50 years has to be written, the years of the pooh-bah,” says Short, now a successful businessman.
Short bore the brunt of the power play when he was barred from contesting for government scholarship after his father took a stand against the then administration.
“Can you imagine sitting in a scholarship examination and being taken out, it’s not fun. I didn’t realise what was going on until I got older and asked ‘hey why would they do that to a young kid’.
“Actually it shows you that the element of vengeance of enforcing their superiority was more than just an endemic, it was a problem so I wanted to highlight that a bit in the book.”
Through False Start in Paradise, Short also pays homage to what he called “the Blue Book” – Cook Islands Politics assembled and edited by Ron and Marjorie Crocombe in the late 70s.
He says the purpose of his book is to record as much of the history because there was no one else doing it.
“I don’t want our history to be written by researchers trying to do a PhD degree because all they’re going to do is refer to all the documents, which is only a third of the picture. The interaction and all that went on in the government those days is bigger picture and has to be written by a Cook Islander.
“It’s also a critical eye because our people always praise government, praise New Zealand, praise, praise, praise all the time. It was inculcated into them.
“If you want to go somewhere you need to say ‘yes sir, thank you sir’ that’s what you do. So it’s very hard to extricate our people from that type of thinking.”
Writing this book was not easy, Short admits. It took him about five years to put the book together after having abandoned it two or three times with the thoughts of “let sleeping dogs lie”.
He paid tribute to former University of the South Pacific director Rod Dixon and lawyer Tim Arnold for their editing and contributions.
“One of my big problem is my English is not very good. I couldn’t master it. The verb and grammar checks on computer helped a lot. When Tim read through my draft and corrected it while adding bits and pieces, he said to me ‘I don’t know where you learned your English from,” Short says with a laugh.
“I said looking into his eyes ‘Tim you try writing a book in Maori (because he speaks Maori) and I will check it for you then you will not question my English any more’.”
Short hopes his book will inspire other Cook Islanders to take up the challenge of recording the country’s history for future generations.
He only hopes they will have something good to write about.
“A good book will require a good story and a good story is when our government wakes up and do things better. We have massive problems with our own administration.
“We have an overweight government, we have so much wastage at government level, there is so much unnecessary travel, there is no check and balance in government, the Audit department is zilch, the Solicitor-General only attends to things that are referred to them, to me they should be saying ‘no you can’t do this, you can’t do that’.
“So a good story will only happen if indeed we have a good government. In fact I think the government we had in our period is better than any other government because we had genuine interest in doing the right thing.
“Here I think there is a genuine interest in doing the right thing but the right thing in their mind is not necessarily the right thing. It is about political survival and that has assumed a greater importance than doing good job.”
· Iaveta Short’s False Start in Paradise is selling at $65 (colour hardback) and $45 (b/w paperback) at Moana Sands.
False Start in Paradise extract:
Iaveta Short: There is just no way you can eat $1000 worth of food in one day
“One of the perks of government office was frequent travel. Equally, the cost and abuse of official travel was always a subject of public concern.
When we were in Opposition, we had campaigned for the reform of the official travel system. So, when we became Government, I was keen to revamp all travel arrangements for officials, parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers.
It was clear to everyone that travel was a quick way for officials and ministers to award themselves extra money.
The Parliamentary Office had no rigorous and transparent travel approvals system. It seemed to depend on who the Minister was, and what sway he held within the Parliamentary Office.
The rules for Ministerial and parliamentary travel were based on a formula that was very loosely applied.
For example, every day spent overseas attracted an allowance equal to 3.5 times the room rates of the hotel or motel selected by the Minister, plus an entertainment allowance, and extras to cover any additional duties.
All Ministers and Assistant Ministers travelled business class, as did all officials accompanying their Minister. Ministers could travel with their wives, subject to Cabinet approval – and, in the CIP days, approval had been automatic.
There were obvious weaknesses in this system. Ministers had an incentive to book the most expensive hotel, at say $500 per night, as that would result in an allowance package of $1,750 per day. There is just no way you can eat $1000 worth of food in one day.
We changed the rules as follows:
• Only the PM would travel business class. Ministers, Parliamentarians and public servants would travel economy;
• We negotiated a cut rate with Air New Zealand for all ministerial and official air travel;
• We cut the travel allowance to 2.5 not 3.5 times the hotel room rates;
• In addition, we obtained good rates from various reasonably priced hotels in Auckland and Wellington, and required everyone to stay at these – though for travel further afield, we remained at the mercy of travel agents;
• All travel had to be approved by Cabinet and a report regarding the travel tabled in Parliament (normally within three months of return);
• In addition, we allowed officials and Parliamentarians to stay with overseas relations and retain their allowances;
• The new rules permitted the PM to take his wife at government expense to meetings where wives were commonly included, such as Forum meetings. Ministers, on the other hand, could be accompanied by spouses only once a year at government expense.
These measures allowed us to reduce the cost of travel by almost half in the first year of operation. At last, travel was no longer a lucrative source of money for those manipulating the system.
However, none of this removed the clamour for travel from every part of Government. Worse still, unknown to me, deals were being made between Ministers and the Parliamentary staff who had been charged with implementing the new rules.
Sadly, I fear this may still be the situation today, with Ministers effectively able to write their own tickets and allowance and those who are charged with enforcing the rules, too timid to enforce the rules and restrictions in place.
Our politicians continue to abuse the system but, unfortunately for them, as I see it, there is still divine justice in this small Christian country.
Most of those MPs or Ministers (about a third overall) who are happy to indulge in corrupt and dishonest practices, at the expense of the nation, have ended up poor, sick and rejected – many dying unhappy. I have yet to see any of the really bad MPs retire at peace with themselves.
The good ones, on the other hand, seem to have discovered there is still life to be had after politics.