The UNICEF-sponsored event initiated by acting Internal Affairs Secretary Paul Allworth was described by Nicholas as “a very important step forward, designed to review and assess the country’s entire portfolio of welfare beneficiary payments.”
Allsworth said he was seeking robust discussion to bring about credible solutions and recommendations for government.
“The only way government will respond to the peoples’ recommendations is that we must individually, or collectively, raise these issues and concerns.”
The workshop was supported by various sectors of the community including government, private industry, non-government organisations (NGOs) and members of the public.
“The design and the setup and make up of our pension system in the future is going to be decided in this workshop this morning,” said Nicholas.
The workshop opening also featured impassioned speeches from Public Service Commissioner Russel Thomas and the acting chief executive officer of the Kingdom of Tonga’s Internal Affairs ministry, Luisa Manuofetoa.
She compared Tonga’s humbler welfare system which has only two payments compared to the Cook Islands’ 13.
She also spoke emotionally of how beautiful she thought Rarotonga was, and that when travelling around the island she has specifically noticed that there isn’t anyone struggling to meet their basic needs.
Tonga’s social welfare system only extends to persons with severe disabilities who receive $75 per month in government assistance, and the elderly, who get 75-$85 a month pension.
She said she was very grateful to Nicholas for the opportunity for her small delegation to share and learn from the workshop and her visit to the Cook Islands.
Nicholas also described in his speech the “birth” of this country’s welfare system, “And the architects responsible for what many of our people get to enjoy in this modern age.”
He said the Cook Islands’ welfare system was initiated by the country’s first premier, Albert Henry, in a submission put forward to parliament on October 6, 1965.
The sale of postage stamps, both in the Cook Islands and overseas, initially supported the old age pension.
Nicholas said he had told Manuofetoa, that the forward thinking of Henry, as well as the Cook Islands’ special relationship with New Zealand, which assisted in setting up the pension scheme the country had today, was why the Cook Islands pension scheme was the envy of all other countries in the Pacific Islands region. In 1965 the annual appropriation was around $30,000, a sharp contrast to today’s old age pension budget of around $12.2 million dollars. The total funding for all benefits in the country’s welfare system comes to $18.3m.
“So we have a lot to thank our forefathers, those who have come before us and those responsible for taking the reins of this country from New Zealand.”
Russel Thomas also spoke passionately of Albert Henry’s “Don’t leave anyone behind” policy and highlighted how this tied in today with the Cook Islands’ national vision, “To enjoy the highest quality of life consistent with the aspirations of our people and in harmony with our culture and our environment.” He said the Cook Islands’ national goals were to improve welfare and reduce inequality and economic hardship.
“And when the public service delivers excellent goods and services, it is for everyone.”
Highlighting the objectives of the workshop, Nicholas said: “As you review, access and discuss our various welfare benefits – it is (essential) that you focus on the basic needs of our families and communities in this ever-changing social and economic environment with its many demands and challenges.
“It is government’s priority to improve and strengthen our social protection policies and programmes in line with our key national sustainable development roles.
“Assistance will be provided by government to improve the operations and service delivery of our welfare, and I challenge you all to have an open mind in your deliberations and to come up with innovative and creative ideas on how we can shape the future welfare benefits that are relevant, value for money, beneficial, and above all - sustainable for the country.”
As Nicholas was about to declare the workshop officially open he said, “If the former premier of this country, Albert Henry, could do such a wonderful job so many years ago, I am sure you will be able to do a much, much better job in recommending to government a way forward in improving our welfare system.”
The full day’s programme addressed the various ramifications involved in planning and implementing future social welfare payments. The workshop’s recommendations will be put forward to government.