Sitting at a busy coffee shop in Wellington, the bright, educated and confident young Cook Islander I sat across from was planning his return to the Cook Islands to live and work.
We spoke of the challenges, but more the rewards of living and working in Rarotonga, and to be able to give back to our country and communities.
I wondered to myself, how can we make this more intentional, how can we incentivise our people to live and work at home.
Finishing our coffee, we talked freely of the job he was currently in, his life experiences and, having just returned from the Cook Islands, how much he missed home and that sense of calling from our ipukarea deep within his soul.
I felt then that same sense of calling, a call I responded to years ago and a calling so many of us have responded to as well.
Just last week on my many meetings with other Cook Islanders living and working in Wellington this same sense of coming home was felt by others.
How do we incentivise Cook Islanders returining and do we even have a figure in our minds of what that would look like in say five years, 10 yeare or 20 years?
What’s our plan, as so many speak of a sense of depopulation and a repopulation of foreign workers to sustain our country – because at the moment that is exactly the case.
With the rise in price of rental properties, one I saw just last week listed at $500 for a two-bedroom home, and another, a studio for $300.
If our people here in New Zealand want to return the first question is where are they going to live, especially if their families are from outside Rarotonga, or they have no family home to go back to?
As victims of our own success, the private rental market has ballooned and this is a situation felt also in countries like Tahiti and Hawaii who have similar tourism economies.
How can we draw our people back by providing then with the basic necessity of shelter and a home to live in, and make that affordable, when this is a propblem for those already living in Rarotonga?
Three hundred dollars a week for an isolated studio will cost close to $16,000 a year – that’s half a salary for a teacher or an entry-level public servant. And at $500 a week, thats $26,000 a year. To earn enough to pay your rent and live, one would need to be earning at least twice that much.
Where will they live, where can they work and what will they need to earn are all questions that many here in New Zealand are pondering, as they consider the move home.
(There is plenty of work I tell them, especially in government and in the legal profession and the tourism private sector).
Yet this whole discussion is without considering the cultural shift, for as a son or daughter for the return home, one must also consider a lifestyle and attitude change.
Sons for the Return Home was actually a book written by famous Pacific author Albert Wendt, that was turned into a movie and speaks of the relationship that develops between a Samoan and a New Zealander, as each finds the other’s culture a hard adjustment.
Friends and family are not supportive, particularly when she becomes pregnant, although he proposes marriage and the movie ends in tragedy.
Sadly this is the story for some that return home. And just before I left for Wellington, I spoke with a couple who were packing up their business and family and returning to Australia with another family, because they just couldn’t make ends meet.
How can we incentivise the return of our people, how can we provide shelter, jobs with a salary that meet the basic needs, and how can we provide the same for those that are already living there and call the Cook Islands home?
King Solomon’s words echo through time, that without a vision, the people perish.
A vision for a Cook Islands filled with our people, their talent and skills, a Pa Enua filled with our people, and a vibrant flourishing economy, reliant on our people to make it so.
That is a vision worth dreaming about, and worth incentivising – the question really is, how?
The government looking at studying at home incentives and student loans at home is definitely a step in the rightdirection.