Lessons of the past elude government

Tuesday January 26, 2016 Written by Published in Tropical Chronicles
Wilkie Rasmussen. 10101910 Wilkie Rasmussen. 10101910

Do many of you remember the “Toagate” saga?


I bet you it is still fresh in your minds, but let me remind you. It was a political and economic catastrophe that plagued the Democratic Party including those that opposed it, such as me.

It was the travesty of all travesties that cost taxpayers more than eight million dollars to pay for a breach of contract.

Yep, it went to court and both the High Court and the Court of Appeal said it was a valid contract and that the government was in breach of it. In fact it was a “head contract” (not quite the full contract that was still in train). If it had been the full contract the Minister of Finance was to have signed it but this one was signed by a government official, the head of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management.

The issue caused much fighting within the Cabinet of the day and much nasty anti-government protests and threats to expose Government ills in the media from those who stood to lose if the deal went ahead, Government reneged on the deal. It was a very bad idea. It is now an unwanted legacy for the Democratic Party, the then-government and political masters.

If that was a bad mistake politically you would think that some lessons have been learned from it. Well, not so. It had recently become public knowledge now that the much-burdened Secretary of Marine Resources has signed the contract between the Cook Islands and the European Union/Spanish purse seining fishing fleets.

The alarm bells have started to ring now as a stream of questions have started flowing in as to whether he does have to authority to sign a deal of such magnitude on behalf of our country. Or should that honour rest with his Minister, none other than the prime minister, Henry Puna.

Experienced people in the field of international affairs have expressed two views thus far.

Some say that in some instances Government officials have the authority to sign deals between the Cook Islands and foreign nations or overseas institutions.

People that say the Secretary for Marine Resources has the authority to sign seem, however, to say it with some qualification. That might be the logical understanding but in the Toa case the court had no regard for exceptions. Once you initial or sign the document containing the terms of the contract, regardless of whether you are a Minister of the Crown or a Head of Ministry, that contract is a valid one.

In the Toa matter, Toa felt cheated and sued the Cook Islands Government. In this instance, if the Cook Islands Government changes its mind and withdraws, it is potential fodder for the Spanish fishing companies. Form their perspective of course, it will not matter who signed the contract. In Toa, the Cook Islands government appealed on the grounds that only Ministers are empowered by the Cook Islands Constitution to sign away contracts on behalf of the Government. It pointed to a number of precedents in New Zealand and other jurisdictions and to the development of our Constitutional law for support of its argument. It was dismissed by the three Court of Appeal charges. They upheld the decision by the Chief Justice in the High Court, saying it was a valid commercial agreement and to breach it invited implications.

Essentially what we are staring right into is the barrel of a shotgun, considering the example set out by the Toa case. Whose fault is this?  After mustering up all that he could of what amounted to nothing more than “perceived” authority, has the Secretary of Marine Resources jumped the gun?  Has he masqueraded himself as the “authority” figure to sign away the ocean of the Cook Islands to Spanish purse seiners? And has he ultimately sidelined his boss the PM, Minister of Marine Resources? Or is this the case of a PM not in the know of what his HOM has done?

I feel sorry for those people, including myself who have been protesting to bring a stop to purse seining.

The Ipukarea Society has invested so much energy into it, having organised marches to halt all fishing until we clearly have the safeguards in place. If the government, for example, succumbs to public pressure and changes its mind, will the Spanish fishing companies roll over and say, “Ah, at least we gave it a try.”

I don’t think so. They stand to lose millions. For sure they will fight and take our poor nation to court – mark my words.

I heard that the Government will now make sure that the Northern Group islanders will subscribe to the Government’s purse-seining policy.

 Government had claimed that they did but islands like Penrhyn for example don’t like the idea and the same feeling is running thorough the other islands. After all, it is their very livelihoods that are under threat. So brace yourselves for more taxpayer’s dollars being wasted on charter flights to the northern islands.

The PM, Ministers and the Northern group MPs and officials are already packing the chilly bins and the packs of cigarettes to take on the trip.

“Hello! We are back, it is campaign time!” 

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