The turnout exceeded 130 people and gave members of the public, civil servants and parliamentarians a platform to discuss prominent issues in the Cook Islands and on Rarotonga.
The debate was led by a panel of local leaders, ministers and government personnel; including Minister of Finance, Mark Brown, Democratic Party deputy leader, William (Smiley) Heather, OPM’s chief of staff Bredina Drollet, the secretary of the Cook Islands National Youth Council, Piakura Passfield, Health secretary, Elizabeth Iro, and Pastor Tevai Matapo.
Chaired by Speaker of Parliament Niki Rattle, the debate focused on poverty in the Cook Islands, posing the question: “How is poverty addressed in the Cook Islands, and is it effective?”
The six panellists were allocated five minutes to give an introductory speech and then the floor was opened to the public.
Each panellist gave a definition of poverty, using an international measure for “economic scarcity,” an ideal most panellists believed was not relevant to the Cook Islands.
Iro, Drollet, Passfield and Heather regarded economic-influenced poverty as someone living on or under $NZ1.75 a day, which was updated in 2015 to around $2.60 a day – a definition from The World Bank and the United Nations.
“So if we take this fact, we would have to say that in the Cook Islands, poverty is not a problem. But that sort of definition is not helpful, it’s not helpful for development, it’s not helpful for our policies, so it’s definitely not helpful for us,” Drollet said.
The United Nations offered an alternative definition, which most panellists said was a foundation for their judgment.
The prevailing opinion was that poverty not only depends on income, but also on access to services and facilities.
The audience heard that poverty is a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.
But it is also characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and community safety nets. Each panellist addressed poverty in the Cook Islands differently, following the ideal that poverty occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in developing countries, and pockets of poverty amid wealth, in developed countries. Iro spoke of poverty in reference to support and facilities available to those of ill health and disabilities; of those who are unable to work, and the strain this inflicts on families and children in the Cook Islands.
“I think we need to take a look at cultural community principals, make the child not just belong to the parents but to the village, to the island you are from, and to the Cook Islands,” Iro said. Passfield disagreed with this idea. The young university graduate began by affirming that she, fortuitously, has no personal experience of poverty.
“I am privileged. What I know of poverty has not come through my own personal, direct experiences but rather through observation, research and a privileged education,” she said, before apologising in advance if she offended anyone by quoting incorrect information.
“A family of four is estimated to need an average of $40,000 a year to meet their basic needs in the Cook Islands.
“If we assume that both parents are making the medium wage of $18,000 a year, a family will still not be making enough to meet the cost of living.
“And that is the medium wage. What about those employees below the threshold.
“What about families where only one parent is working, or what about the children who only have one parent?
“We need to stop relying on this myth that the community at large will raise our children. That may have been true at one stage, but it is becoming less apparent in the Cook Islands.”
Passfield went on to address the cycle of poverty and its prominence in the Cook Islands, citing the number of students dropping out of high school, and young males involved in petty crimes. She also reiterated the need for a legislation requiring young people to stay in high school till the age of 16.
“We need to realise there is always a trade-off. If parents want to be able to support their families financially, they need to be working full time and this means that children are left without parental supervision.
“This has been shown to lead to skipping school, substance abuse and petty crime. It is a cycle that we need to break.”
Heather focused on poverty as a result of pay inequality between the average worker compared to expatriates.
He said the low minimum wage in the Cook Islands could lead to poverty and fuel the de-population of the Cook Islands.
“We have Cook Islanders moving over to New Zealand and Australia due to the low income present in the Cook Islands and Pa Enua.”
Pastor Matapo argued that poverty could be helped by God and the church.
“I would argue that poverty is evidence of a spiritual problem,” he said.
Later he identified what the church is able to do in order to eradicate poverty.
“Church members are encouraged to come forward regarding members of the church who are struggling or are lacking the general necessities of life.
“The Cook Islands is a Christian country and there is much we can learn from the Bible as to how we can cope with poverty in our country.”
Brown was the last panellist to speak, offering insight into what the Cook Islands can do and is doing to limit poverty.
He began with a famous quote from the Cook Islands’ first elected leader, the late Papa Arapati (Albert Henry).
“Nobody in the tribe will be left behind.”
Brown said the Cook Islands government was addressing poverty through measures such as affordable health care, free education, the opportunity for overseas scholarships, a welfare system that caters for the vulnerable, and a large church and community involvement.
He focused on the importance of education.
“The biggest thing I think we can do to overcome poverty in the Cook Islands is to train, educate, and learn how to live in the future world. Where even without money, you can still be healthy, you can still be wealthy and you can still be wise,” Brown said.
Members of the audience were quick to their feet to direct questions and comments at members of the panel.
Some civil and community workers challenged the panel to accompany them to the outer islands and to homes on Rarotonga to witness first-hand the poverty imbedded within the Cook Islands.
A local Mama pointed out that the six panellists are privileged and yet were offering their opinion on poverty.
“You agreed you are all privileged, so what do you know about poverty, what do you know about living in poverty?” she asked.
Members of the panel nodded in agreement.
Topics and issues such as the lack of support and funding for the outer islands were addressed by members of the audience, whilst members of non-government organisations (NGOs) also spoke, saying that the work they do for Rarotonga and the Pa Enua goes unrecognised.
Donna Smith from the Te Vaerua Rehabilitation Centre brought to light that the first government funding they had received was cut earlier this year.
Education on the outer islands was a topic that members of the audience were keen to discuss and some in the audience were shocked to hear that only English and mathematics are offered to high school students in the Pa Enua.
“They (students) then come over here (Rarotonga) and they have to try catch up to their peers, and then from there if they decide to study at universities. They then have to catch up to students who have received a much different education overseas,” said a teacher who has taught on both Rarotonga and on the outer islands.
“And that is why there is such a high rate of Pacific island students dropping out within their first year at university, as Piakura (Passfield) said. It’s just a cycle, and we need to do something to stop it” she said.
The event made for a night where the community was granted a significant platform with which they could voice issues.
It was said more Speaker’s debates may follow.