Electoral reform: Time to ‘walk the talk’

Thursday March 22, 2018 Published in Letters to the Editor
Lynnsay Rongokea with People’s Group for Change supporter Heather Webber-Aitu after casting their votes in Tupapa. The picture was taken during the Cook Islands election of November 2010. 18032105 Lynnsay Rongokea with People’s Group for Change supporter Heather Webber-Aitu after casting their votes in Tupapa. The picture was taken during the Cook Islands election of November 2010. 18032105

Dear Editor,

Mata-Atua’s letter in CI News on March 20 headlined, “Talk of electoral reform hits a nerve”, has certainly hit a nerve with me.

 

Writing letters to the editor on electoral reform and her proposed changes will require action – it’s time for her to “walk the talk”. 

Electoral reform is not a new issue. It is not an easy task in the Cook Islands. It requires commitment and action. I am speaking from my own personal experience having been a political reform “activist” in the Cook Islands and having a pivotal role in the movement for the Group for Political Change (GPC). I assume Mata Atua was residing overseas at the time.

 In the late 90s to early 2000, government formed a series of coalitions. A handful of women decided “enough is enough” and took action. We started a movement called Group for Political Change (GPC). The founding members were myself, Elizabeth Araiti Ponga, Tere Carr and Doreen Boggs. We made a pledge to commit our time, no matter how long it took to implement our goals and purpose. We were the voice of those who wanted change but feared political reprisal if they spoke out. It was a challenge. We used the recommendations from the Political Reform Commission Report (the purple book) as our starting point to select key issues from that report to lobby for change.

We identified four key areas of proposed legislative change:

Electoral reform, reducing the number of seats in parliament (we proposed 1 vote per electorate), abolishing the New Zealand seat, reducing the term of parliament from five years to three, abolishing the MPs’ superannuation scheme, and getting women to stand for parliament to implement change from within.

We then strategised on how we were going to achieve our goals and put them into action within a time frame. Media and public awareness campaigns, a petition, a march on parliament to present a petition, identifying MPs for their support, a referendum, legislative change. We encouraged women to stand for parliament to make a change from within.

With the support of members of the public and businesses, we ran a media awareness campaign. Elizabeth Araiti Ponga and Tere Carr held weekly radio talkbacks in both English and Maori. We made use of TV, articles in the newspapers, and held public meetings to reach out to all people living in the Cook Islands. The radio programme for GPC had its own time slot every week. with the theme song, “Poli, poli,politicians can you make the right decisions for all of us, for all of us….”

We had t-shirts printed with the message “Time for Change”. We lobbied parliamentarians and Cabinet members from both parties. We asked a lawyer attend a meeting with us, to meet with the prime minister of the day to discuss the proposed legislative changes. Iaveta Short and Tata Crocombe called a meeting of all Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) committed to political reform to discuss a common agenda to push for a referendum for legislative change. The petition was circulated throughout the Cook Islands, and was signed by thousands of Cook Islanders. We needed two-thirds of Cook Islanders for the changes to be passed in parliament. MP Norman George was instrumental in presenting and supporting the proposed changes to parliament on behalf of the GPC. We led a march on parliament, to meet with parliamentarians.

A local business sponsored a bus to go around the island and pick people up who wanted to join the march. We waited for hours in the hot sun, with our placards for the parliamentarians to finally come out and meet with us all. The police closed the road from the seawall on one side, and Cook Islands Steel on the other in an attempt to prevent protestors from joining the march. The vote in parliament to abolish the New Zealand seat was nerve-racking. We needed one more vote to pass the bill. It was Dr Joseph Williams who acceded to the call of thousands of Cook Islanders to have the courage to do the right thing. The bill was finally passed.

What did we achieve? The referendum for reducing the number of seats in parliament was not successful.

People living in the outer islands wanted to retain their representatives. The term for parliament was reduced from five years to four. The MPs’ superannuation scheme was abolished and merged with the national scheme. Four women committed to push for change from within parliament stood as independent candidates at the following elections: Elizabeth Araiti Ponga, Tere Carr, Jessie Sword, Mereana Taikoko, and Teina McKenzie. However, the electors at the time were not ready for change.

If Mata Atua has a proposal to establish an independent Electoral Commission, my advice is don’t reinvent the wheel. Review the Political Reform Commissions Report and what has been achieved to date. You need to walk the talk, not just talk the talk. Be seen, be heard and be active.

On behalf of the founding members of Group for Political Change I can stand proudly and say, “We are the ‘Vaine Toa’ of the Cook Islands. We believed we could make a difference. We stood up for our beliefs.

By mobilising the public and with the support of thousands of Cook Islanders, we made the change. We made a difference.

            Lynnsay Rongokea 

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