The government is insisting that the initialling of the controversial agreement between the European Union and the Cook Islands government was a “quality control” process only, rather than formal indication of accepting all its terms and conditions.
The 42-page Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SPFA) between the EU and the Cook Islands including Protocols and Annexes is becoming the most controversial international partnership agreements a Cook Islands government has ever contemplated and so far, endorsed through cabinet.
The SFPA was initialled last year by Marine Resources secretary Benn Ponia after negotiations with the EU.
PM press secretary Trevor Pitt says: “The procedure of initialising the draft documentation (page by page), by the Marine Secretary is a process of quality control over the negotiated text. Any subsequent change to the text of the draft requires a further initializing between parties, and so on. These are the authorisation steps within the negotiations toward a partnership”.
Pitt reiterates that initialising is merely “the application of quality control – the required oversight of the draft toward final approvals”.
“To assume otherwise is to be ignorant of the processes currently underway. To say otherwise is to spin misinformation that is contrary to the formalities that are progressing with time.”
He says the EU has its own complex set of procedures, and process. Again, Pitt makes the assurance that the Cook Islands has undertaken its duties in terms of consultation and advice, including legal opinions.
He did not elaborate what advice or legal opinions were sought and what these may have stated.
Pitt has earlier confirmed that cabinet has endorsed the SFPA and it now awaits the signature of the Prime Minister, Henry PUna, as minister of Marine Resources. The SFPA endorsed by cabinet is the same document carrying Ponia’s initials.
But because the Prime Minister hasn’t put his signature to the agreement, Pitt says “there is no legally binding instrument in place yet”.
“The Cook Islands is not legally-bound by any of the actions taken to date.”
Opposition coalition leader Teina Bishop says Pitt has missed the entire point of their position on the SFPA and government’s actions to date.
Bishop says he doesn’t want to waste time addressing the governments’ “quality control” claims. “As far as we’re concerned the agreement was initialled by the MMR secretary accepting the terms and conditions, it wasn’t a draft because since then that agreement has never been examined or amended with the view of making it more beneficial to the Cook Islands.”
The outspoken opposition leader says he wanted to remind the government that the government held two negotiations with Brussels before MMR secretary Ponia put his initials to the agreement.
“What we’re asking the PM and his government is, where did Ben Ponia get his legal authority to initial such an agreement on behalf of the Cook Islands?”
“It is very clear that under the Marine Resources Act, Ponia had no authority to do so and that’s made very obvious in section 9 and 4 of the Act. He had no right to sign an international partnership agreement on behalf of our country”.
Bishop goes further to say this has been allowed to happen because PM Puna has been “very irresponsible in his duties as minister of Marine Resources.”
“If I were minister, there is no way I would allow the secretary of MMR to negotiate an agreement like this on behalf of the country.”
Bishop also dropped a bombshell when he disclosed that he’s been told on good authority that Ponia did not have cabinet approval to proceed with initialling the SFPA last year.