He is arguably one of the busiest men in the Cook Islands, and wife Tuaine, a busy lawyer in her own right, makes the effort to accompany him to nearly every function he attends.
And, even a minor bout of pneumonia didn’t stop him recently performing his duties throughout the visit of the Queen’s Baton relay to Rarotonga.
Over the past few months I have watched with admiration as he attended every major event that I also covered for CINews, as well as the not-so-major gatherings around the island.
On Constitution Day, he danced proudly for Palmerston Island to an auditorium-wide chorus of “15 Stars”. He was at the 52nd anniversary of self-government float parade, attended every evening programme at the national auditorium, sat in the sweltering heat for Gospel Day, and attended handovers, dedications, prize-giving’s, ribbon cuttings, celebrations, headstone unveilings, funerals, weddings, birthdays, school programmes; as well as many other events, including receiving foreign dignitaries at Government House.
So, when Marsters agreed to meet me for a coffee and interview, I was grateful and didn’t want to take his time lightly.
Meeting with Marsters in a quiet corner of Beachcomber café, I was hoping to do a quick question and answer interview, to give readers an insight into what his life as QR must be like behind the scenes. And the influences over the course of the 70-year-old’s life that have made him who he is today.
Stepping out of his SUV with “QR” personalised licence plates, he’s dressed casually and refuses to let me get the coffee.
He’s not too concerned with his diary this morning, and in true island fashion, nearly two hours later we’ve covered everything from his ancestors, upbringing, schooling, his hobbies, political life and other political issues, meeting Tuaine, their children and grandchildren, and the future of the Cook Islands.
There is no short answer from Marsters, on any subject. He is clearly an intelligent and reflective man.
My first couple of questions are, “How do you do it…. juggling the demands of QR and family?” “And what do you like to do in your ‘down time’?” Naively thinking he had some.
He says these days, by the time he gets home, he’s tired and with age catching up, doesn’t have the energy he had 30 to 40 years ago, “When I could do a whole lot of things in one day.”
He says as a younger man, working as a high-level bureaucrat for the Ministry of Agriculture, he had a bit more time after work, and time management was very important to him, just as it is today.
Remembering with a smile on his face, he says after coming home, he could toil away in his taro patch for an hour, feed the pigs, and then go fishing.
He played senior sports on the weekend for Avatiu and later Arorangi, and says he was an avid reader. Marsters proudly says with a raised eyebrow that he believes he was the first person in the Cook Islands to have the entire Ian Fleming 007 James Bond series, and favoured the “secret agent” spy genre books. He also liked reading Agatha Christie.
He was an adept free diver, catching fish for his young children, and to help ends meet.
But that was then, and says now he just doesn’t have time for much of anything outside of his QR responsibilities, and his blossoming family. He gives both more than 100 per cent.
He’s now into his fourth year in the job, in his second three-year term.
The Marsters have four children living with them, three sons and one daughter, who have given them seven grandchildren. The eldest, he says, is preparing for university next year.
I ask him if there was one person growing up who had a significant impact on him.
Without hesitation he says his grandmother played a major part in shaping and guiding him through his early formative years.
Born on Palmerston Island, Marsters spent the first few years of his life in Aitutaki, where his father worked as a wireless operator. After returning briefly to Palmerston, he then went to stay with his paternal grandmother in Avatiu then Nikao, Rarotonga when he was just four, to live with his two sisters, a brother, and his nephew.
“Our home began early morning with a prayer, and every night we went to sleep, after prayer.”
In those early years he says it was okay, but as a teen he jokes, it became a bit of a nuisance, especially the evening part. “I had to be home by sundown for the prayer, before I snuck out and played men”, he says.
“But that was my life, I grew up under my grandmother’s roof. I believe she tried to teach us all the good things. Honesty was important to her. Church was important to her and Sunday school was where I honed my Maori.”
“It was a hard upbringing. I had to grow up quickly.”
Marsters matured into a responsible young man and the qualities that had been instilled in him stayed with him for life. His grandmother also taught him that loyalty matters.
“And I can say I’m one of the most loyal people around. When I make friends with people, it is for life and I would never do or say anything that would hurt them or their family. And I do have friends that I consider more like a brother than anything else and our children interact like brothers and sisters, and have great respect and love for each other. That is great.”
He’s not joking, saying as a matter of fact, he has a Samoan friend who he befriended over 50 years ago.
“And when my brother George (Tui) and family come to Rarotonga, they stay at home with me and my family. Likewise, when in Samoa, my family stays with their uncle George and aunty Julie and their family.”
His school friends in Samoa were his only social contact while he was at boarding school in Samoa.
“I had to leave my grandmother, sisters, brother, and nephew behind,” he says. “I was only 14 when I left for Samoa. But that was life.”
“That upbringing I suppose, hardened myself up.
But the teaching was to be honest, and to be helpful, to be mindful of things around me.”
A team player, Marsters excelled at sport and took a strong and active interest in community affairs.
“And I didn’t realise this until later life, but people do come to seek advice from me.”
His genuine qualities were a magnet for others, seeking the wisdom well beyond his years, that Marsters clearly possessed.
In 1974 those qualities also helped him meet his perfect match. Marsters, first noticed Tuaine Wichman when she was working as head chemist at Island Foods. By agreement, their engagement was held on Tuaine’s birthday on April 4, 1975 and they were married on his birthday, August 4, the same year.
After 40 years of being a happily married man, I ask him if he has any advice for younger couples, and he just shakes his head.
“Just love your wife, because you don’t know when you will die. You never know when you will leave everything behind.
While you’re still healthy and alive, love your wife.”
“And remember you’re there to support, protect and exercise total loyalty to her, after all that’s what you promised when you took her to the altar.”
By the time Marsters started his career in government as an administrator with the Ministry of Agriculture, the agricultural industry was booming.
Thanks to export demands to New Zealand during the 1970s and 1980s glory days, Cook Islands locals especially on Rarotonga, were cashing in.
This did no escape Marsters’ attention and he says he and Tuaine and their young family exported beans to help supplement his meagre government income. When the returns were good, he says, they were netting around $20 - $25 for a five kilo box. “Good money from beans,” he says, smiling.
“It was something to do, and something to help make ends meet.”
Marsters says we were doing well, as were planters from around the island, but the deregulation of the industry in New Zealand in the late 1980s marked the beginning of the end.
“We couldn’t compete with pineapples imported in volume from Queensland, oranges from California and bananas from Ecuador.”
He adds the long-term impacts were probably not thought out properly by the politicians of the day, thinking they could still get top dollar for our produce.
Marsters turned his back on the Ministry of Agriculture in 1990 to pursue a career in politics. The political pull had always been there he says. being involved with the Cook Islands Party since the first election independence era in 1965. By 1967 he was party secretary, a position he held for the next 33 years.
He however first wrestled over the move to become an MP, which would mean giving up the security of his government “job for life”, to a riskier political career, three years at a time.
Marsters was also being groomed to step up into the top job from his role as deputy secretary of Agriculture.
Nonetheless, the move paid off, and now he's still remembered for his accomplishments from 1991 when he took charge of the Ministry of Works in preparation of the Punanga Nui market and road upgrade, as well as the massive National Auditorium project. He also oversaw the provision of facilities for the hosting of the Pacific Arts Festival in October 1992.
Turning to a lighter subject, and knowing Marsters has traveled extensively in his political and QR roles, I ask about his favourite place in the Cook Islands.
He’s quick to reply; “I have visited all the islands of the Cook Islands now and each one of them has its unique features and beauty. But I guess I am drawn more to Motu Tapu in Penrhyn mainly because it was the birth and final resting place of my tupuna vaine, my great-great-great-grandmother Tepou Tenioi; the source of whom I consider to be my origin. Needless to say, Motu Tapu (Tetautua) a really beautiful piece of God’s creation. - To page 20
He returned from an emotional journey to Motu Tapu last year, following the discovery of his tupuna vaine’s unmarked grave, and is now looking to return with a specially-made plaque to mount on her grave sometime soon.
To really challenge him, I next ask Marsters his favourite place in the world outside of the Cook Islands.
He says this is a question he’s asked a lot and his answer is already choreographed to perfection.
Surprisingly, it’s a small Scottish village he stumbled across while doing studies in England, named Pitlochry.
Marsters says looking out the window of his accommodation one morning, with a light mist hanging in the air, the combination of rolling meadows and what appeared like a garden of daffodils and spots of white sheep, was breathtaking.
The Blair Atholl castle, in Pitlochry, also held a special discovery.
At the time, in 1972, the duke in residence still held onto his own small symbolic private army. Part of the castle, however, was also then a tourist attraction.
One suite he says in the castle was formally called the “Red Bedroom”, as everything in the room was red.
“The double bed, the bedding, everything was red, and on a small red table in the middle of the room, was a small card on it.”
Marsters says on closer inspection it read: ‘Everything in this room was gifted to me by my friend William Marsters’.
He isn’t sure if the ornate bed was made by his great-great-great grandfather the English adventurer who ended up settling on Palmerston, but it certainly got his attention.
I did a quick search following our interview and discovered the William Marsters in question made the four-poster bed in 1750. Much earlier than the Marsters who secured the crown lease of Palmerston in 1888, born in 1831. Nonetheless he could still be a relation.
Marsters says the entire west coast of England and Ireland is rugged and beautiful.
It is evident he has a volume of stories that he recollects with vivid imagination. Marsters also possesses a wisdom that today’s politicians can open their ears and minds to.
When I ask him if he is concerned about the future of the Cook Islands given that so many things are changing, he quietly replies.
“(Our) graduation to a developed country status needs to be seriously considered.”
The OECD assessment is based on Rarotonga he says, not the outer islands. There’s a big difference between the situations there and on hugely more developed Rarotonga.
And he adds, the downside of the graduation is that this country will be restricted in accessing foreign aid.
“Some of our projects are based on the aid packages that we receive.”
Marsters says hopefully the next time the OECD does another assessment they will take a good look at it and take the outer islands situation into account.
“Once that is done they might find that we are really not ready to graduate. I would like to see the status quo left for a while yet.” “But don’t take away the credit in how, over the years, we have developed especially Rarotonga and to some extent Aitutaki.”
He says he’d like to first see more development in the outer islands, small boutique-type developments, maybe. “I’m not quite sure myself what sorts of development, but it is the outer islands that need the most help right now.”
Marsters says one of the best incentives to develop the outer islands could be to introduce zero tax.
“The impact of zero tax would hopefully encourage developers to go to the outer islands. The same could be said for our people from the outer islands returning from overseas to live but has issues confronting them here in Rarotonga such as land, housing etc.
“University graduates from the outer islands returning home will also fall into this category. This would add to the strengthening of the manpower resources on our sister islands. First choices for job vacancies in the outer islands should be given to such candidates. They would go there knowing that they would not be paying any form of tax.”
But he is the first to admit other issues could come into play, that he is not able to see at this time.
He adds that in terms of the GDP, Rarotonga meets around 90 per cent, therefore there is nothing to lose by introducing zero tax to the outer islands. Rather, it would encourage development of the outer islands.
On Rarotonga he says there is scope for upgrading current visitor accommodation, but room should be made for standalone home type accommodation which could involve more local people.
Infrastructure on Rarotonga has probably reached saturation point, he adds.
“One hundred and fifty thousand visitors annually is a real challenge for the infrastructure on Rarotonga. The current upgrading of our water, road, energy and waste management is testament to the positive things that government is undertaking to meet those demands. Such policies should be encouraged and supported.
And finally. Sometime in the future, hopefully not too soon, because the Marsters’ are doing an incredible job, Tom may decide to move on. So what about the community to which he has contributed such a great deal?
“Nothing will change,” Marsters confirms. “Community and my involvement in it will remain the same. My grandmother’s advice about being mindful of my surroundings will be my portion until I die.”
He says his eldest grandson is going to university next year. “So that’s the angle we’re looking at now, to be around still to support him.”
Another grandson is finishing Tereora College next year, with plans to also attend university.
“We need to be around for him also and for the rest of our grandchildren when they reach that stage in life, if God permits me and my wife to be around still.”
Marsters has his future priorities right and throughout his busy and demanding career he has never lost focus on what is important.
After saying goodbye to the Marsters’ recently at a Christmas function, with festivities in full swing, I overheard Tom say to Tuaine, after he spotted someone sitting on her own, “Why don’t we go sit with her.”
The remark summed up what they have done for the country together, and what Tom has achieved in his capacity as Queen’s Representative.
They aren’t the type of couple to seek the spotlight, but rather bring others into it.