Political reform has been moved forward

Friday May 16, 2014 Published in Letters to the Editor
Parliament of the Cook Islands. Parliament of the Cook Islands.

Dear Editor, I think the editorial comment below Kata’s excellent cartoon in Friday's newspaper, on the subject of political reform, was a little unfair to our politicians.

Since the snap election was announced, many people have asked if I would stand again and have been surprised at my response. I share the views expressed by Dennis Tunui in a recent letter to the newspaper. If I wasn't happy to live in a country governed by Cook Islanders, I would not be living here!

As my supporters from 2010 will remember, the reason I stood as a candidate in the Tupapa - Maraerenga electorate was to force the issue of political reform into the pre-election debate. In the run up to the last election there was almost a “gentleman's agreement” between the CIPs and the Demos that they would not talk about political reform, possibly in the hope that it would quietly fade away. I realised that as an Independent, and a Papa'a, my prospects of being elected weren’t great. However, my home electorate was (and still is) the largest in the Cook Islands. Then - as now - the people of Tupapa - Maraerenga have the smallest slice of representation in Parliament of any Cook Islander in this country. However you look at it, that is deeply unfair.

As your readers will know, my supporters and I made it our business to put the issue of “Upgrade 2010” political reform onto the table. So why am I not standing this time? Well, I put my hand up in 2010 because political reform has a large “legal” ingredient in it. I thought I could drive things along quite effectively inside Parliament.

Since the last election, over the last four years, I have been quietly driving this along outside Parliament. Specifically, whenever an MP or Minister has expressed an interest in “political reform”, I have offered my services to provide advice, prepare legal drafts of possible constitutional amendments, and generally encourage the issue. At the same time, and particularly over the last two years, I have made it clear that if the political parties were not interested in political reform then I would have no hesitation in standing for Parliament again.

It’s not just an important issue for me as an individual; it is a vital issue to all Cook Islanders, in terms of this country’s parliamentary democracy. And if the Cook Islanders to whom we entrust political process are not interested in pushing it forward, then perhaps it needs a Papa'a lawyer to do that instead!

The good news is that despite everything that has gone wrong with political process over the last two or three months, the Democratic Party in Opposition was giving careful consideration to Government’s proposed constitutional amendment for reform. That amendment was worked up from one of my own drafts, greatly improved upon by the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office in Wellington, themselves assisting the Cook Islands Crown Law Office.

That was an initiative driven by Teina Bishop over recent months but – and I think it needs to be emphasised in the present circumstances – with the active support and encouragement of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet as a whole.

So yes – we have heard little about “Political Reform” since the snap election was announced, but a proposed constitutional amendment to start that process sits on the order paper in Parliament. I would guess the silence stems from the fact that both parties want to go back and consider, deeply, exactly what they are going to say on this important issue. Speaking personally, I would like to congratulate all the “players” in the last Parliament who have expressed keen and genuine interest in addressing political reform. It will not be easy, but there is a real sense that the time has come to look carefully at this.

Let me close this letter with an observation that I hope is taken as a promise to voters rather than a threat to politicians. If, between now and the beginning of July, the campaigning political parties do not engage on the issue of "political reform” and if (a big “if”!) my commitments to next month’'s very important Court of Appeal superannuation case allow me the time, all of you will be seeing a lot more about political reform on the television and in the nation’s media. I have put considerable time and effort into the superannuation case and its appeal, as I share, personally, the views of the respondents in that case. A good superannuation scheme – underwritten by the Government and “tamper proof” — would be a huge boost to making Cook Islanders more secure in their own country.

In the same way, I feel strongly that political reform is another key piece of the “jigsaw puzzle” of making the Cook Islands a secure home for its people.

So Onwards, Upwards ... "Upgrade 2014!!"

Tim Arnold

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