As we have enjoyed the celebrations of our 55-year-old democracy and its significance for us as a country as self-governing in free association with New Zealand, can we ask the question, what is free? How much has our relationship with New Zealand actually cost us?
Our freedom in 1965 to choose self-governing, as opposed to independence or forming a federation of states with Niue and Tokelau, did not remove the benefits and cost of that choice – or the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining this relationship with our former colonial master.
It was our first Prime Minister Albert Henry who said in 1974, to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea:
“With the right of free entry into New Zealand over the years the Cook Islands has lost a substantial part of its population – almost 14,000 Cook Islanders now live permanently in New Zealand apart from the 22,000 still living in the Cook Islands. To keep our populations and to attract our people back from other countries we must strengthen our economy and broaden our economic base. The sea, perhaps, represents our only real chance to do this.”
Simply put, within nine years of this free association with New Zealand, nearly half the number of the resident population of the Cook Islands in 1974 was now resident in New Zealand – a cost of which Henry was cognisant and knew needed to be addressed.
Forty-six years later, that figure has quadrupled to nearly 82,000 Cook Islanders in New Zealand, according to the last Census. And the resident population of Cook Islands has now dropped to about 14,000.
Forty-six years later and, again, it is the sea that we are looking to provide another income stream, and seabed mining is legislated for and resourced as exploratory licences have been sold to prospective purveyors of manganese nodules.
These nodules, Albert Henry began discussing along with Sir Tom Marsters on the opportunity and caution they provided our country.
And with the advent of better science and technology and the advance of information, a says our nodule fields are the most abundant, extending over the largest area known on earth (124,000 sq km).
The report says: “Stakeholders are positive about seabed mining, so long as concerns are managed, and government processes are transparent and inclusive. The voice of the traditional indigenous culture is considered vital to any future relating to Cook Islands natural resource development.”
And it highlights that there are opposing voices to seabed mining, particularly from international, regional and local environmental groups. There is an identified power asymmetry between Cook Islands government and large multinational mining companies, it says, a threat that will require careful management.
Tourism as a singular income stream to our economy has been disastrous when faced with the crippling effects of a global pandemic, and a situation we all understood was fragile to these sorts of global shifts.
The lesson we should take from tourism is that any income stream into our economy must be diversified, it must be well thought through, and we must take the time to understand better its risks and its benefits to our environment.
We should all benefit from its revenue and not just the few.
Looking ahead maybe the question is, shovel ready, digital ready or travel ready, which income do we chose?
Or do we instead look learn the lesson from tourism and develop all three? That choice is ours to make as we reconfigure our national sustainable development goals for the next 100 years.