Tourist Gerry Mitten from Christchurch said that when he read in CINews last week that finance minister Mark Brown had described the Cook Islands as having never being so prosperous as it is now, he decided to check out the meaning of the word “prosperous”.
“I am a visitor to these beautiful islands and I was very encouraged to read that your people are living amidst such prosperity,” wrote Mitten in a letter to the editor of CINews.
“The Oxford dictionary defines the word to mean ‘flourishing financially’, ‘financial success or good fortune’, ‘well-to-do’, or ‘well-off’.”
Armed with the definition of ‘prosperous’, Mitten, who says he has visited the island multiple times over the years, embarked on a tour of Rarotonga.
“But I did not see signs of prosperity.
“What I saw in many cases was borderline poverty, and upon further investigation I find that many households typical of your average family have mothers and fathers who work day and night.
“In a typical scenario the father works during the day and does, as an example, security work at night, and the poor overworked mother keeps the household together, just by a very small margin.
“Both parents typically make this sacrifice for the sake of the family. They just manage to scrape by, week by week.
“Incidentally, I was in one of your large grocery shops on Saturday and was behind a Cook Islands lady, who purchased, rice, bread, toilet paper and some detergent.
“Typically, such a purchase in New Zealand, on special at an average supermarket, would be in the area of $7 or $8. But up here in this land of prosperity I noticed she was charged $25.67.
“Also, let’s just factor in, Mr Brown, that the average hourly rate in NZ is probably four times that of here.
“Prosperity Mr Brown? I wish the people of the Cook Islands prosperity for 2018 and the years beyond.”
Asked to comment on Mitten’s letter, Brown said:
“Thank you to that man Mr Mitten from Christchurch for his comments on our beautiful country.
“He is fortunate that he lives in the land of milk and honey – the beautiful Aotearoa and his comparison of life in Christchurch to our lifestyle here on Rarotonga was quite stark.
“However, we do not live in a big country with the wealth that New Zealand has and the cheap supermarkets that he mentioned.
“My comments on our country being the most prosperous it’s ever been were in comparison to ourselves eight years ago when I became finance minister. But I agree we are not as prosperous as Mr Mitten from Christchurch.
“Back then, the minimum wage was $5 per hour, the child benefit was $60 a month and the old-age benefit was $400 a month. Our GDP was $350million.
“Today our minimum wage is $7.25, the child benefit is $100 per month, and old-age benefits are $500 and $660 a month. Nominal GDP is up to $420million.
“If we want to grow our minimum wage to even $10 per hour, then we need to start looking at GDP of close to $500million.
“We can reach that with the current growth rate that we have in a short timeframe.
“If we look at our country since independence in 1965, we have certainly prospered as a nation that moved from subsistence economy to agricultural economy to (what we have) today – a service-based economy. And looking to the future to a knowledge-based economy.
“Yes, there is poverty in every country – even the richest country in the world, the USA, has millions of homeless.
“New Zealand has homeless people living openly on the street in Christchurch and Auckland, and many more living below the poverty line. In the Cook Islands we have support systems (paid for by our taxpayers) that we strive to increase resourcing for each year to help the needy.
“And we can only do that if we continue to prosper as a country and as individuals.
“And although we have some people who struggle with their livelihoods, we also live in a paradise that allows our people to grow their own food if they want to and feed their kids if they want to.
“Our biggest problem is not starvation but poor diet and lifestyle, which is resulting in our biggest cause of death – non-communicable diseases. So thanks Mr Mitten from Christchurch for fingering out our people, who you suggest are living in poverty.
“We are more prosperous than before but obviously not as prosperous or as fortunate as people like you in Christchurch.”
However, Demo Party finance spokesman James Beer wasn’t so dismissive of Mitten’s comments.
“Well put Gerry,” he said. “Now that’s Rarotonga. Multiply that by a factor of three for our pa enua and some of our borderline poverty cases on Rarotonga will pale in comparison.
“Brown’s assertion of prosperity in the Cook Islands runs foul of reality and any sane rationale – the country’s depopulation issues are a clue to the level of poverty that exists here.
“The only thing that Brown and his party can claim credit for is our GDP per capita – total gross domestic product divided by the resident population – it just keeps going up and up.
“The more people that leave the higher it gets – in fact our GDP per capita is many times more than China’s.
“But who is lending cheap money to who?”