If the legislation is tabled, parliament would have to consider whether the number of seats should be reduced from 24 to 20.
Rarotonga and Palmerston currently have a combined total of 10 seats, Aitutaki, Manuae, and Te-Au-O-Tu have a combined three, Mangaia has three, Atiu has two, and Manihiki, Mauke, Mitiaro, Penrhyn, and Rakahanga, all have one each. Pukapuka and Nassau are also represented by one member.
The bill proposes that each electorate should have one or more MPs for every 1000 voters. This means that if the electorate of Atiu averaged 1850 eligible voters for three consecutive elections, then they would be entitled to three seats in Parliament. If the bill was passed, the Mangaia electorate would lose two representatives. The Aitutaki, Manuae, and Te-Au-O-Tu electorate would lose one member, as would Atiu. However, Bishop says that these electorates would only “lose a voice, not money”.
Another change proposed in the bill involves scrapping the discrete constituencies for all islands, except for Rarotonga and Palmerston. This means that if an island or island group was entitled to three seats, the first, second, and third-placed candidates would all be elected.
Finally, the bill would not allow for a by-election to be held if a seat was vacated, unless that vacation would result in there being no representative at all for an island or island group.
Bishop says a commission of inquiry into the issue of representation was held over 20 years ago. As a result of the inquiry, 13 recommendations were made to the government of the day. However, of the 13 recommendations, Bishop says only three have been implemented.
On September 10, 2003, legislation was passed allowing Cook Islanders living overseas to vote with the condition that they had been out of the country for less than three months. The overseas constituency was abolished in 2003, reducing the number of seats in Parliament from 25 to 24. In 2004, the term of parliament decreased from five to four years, following a referendum held at the same time as the September 7 general election.
“The people have spoken” says Bishop, referring to a 2010 referendum which asked if there should be a reduction in the number of MPs. A total of 59.2% of voters said “yes”, 33.4% opposed a change, and 7.4% were unsure. However, a 75% majority is required for a referendum to be binding.
The bill was originally drafted by local lawyer Tim Arnold. It was reviewed by the New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office and approved by the then Solicitor General and Public Service Commissioner.
The Cook Islands Party (CIP) was in its first term of government when the Bill was drafted. At the time, they were “committed to political reform” and the Bill was seen as being “consistent with government policy in implementing political reform where possible”.
However, the CIP was then re-elected for a second term and the bill was subsequently taken off the table.
Former Cabinet minister Bishop says he has made multiple attempts since then to have the bill brought back to life, without luck. He questions why the CIP government is so hesitant to consider a bill which they once supported. He says now is the perfect time to consider the number of seats. “No-one is safe in their seat” he says.
Bishop says that if the CIP does not re-table the bill, George Maggie will introduce it as a private members’ bill. This will mean that the bill will be put to a conscience vote. A conscience vote allows MPs to vote according to their personal views, as opposed to following the views of their political party.
If the bill does go to a conscience vote, it is likely MPs will vote according to the views of their constituencies, Bishop says.