Jacinda Ardern came and left much dignified and highly elevated by Cook Islanders as the best New Zealand prime minister to visit our shores.
She certainly is the most approachable to have visited - much like a daughter to some of us, a sister, an aunty – a relative of sorts.
She also showed signs of compassion to us as a Polynesian people and she was somewhat comfortable with all the fuss we made of her.
On this trip to Rarotonga, she was a star that shone brightly and she delivered good news. If her advisers were to assess her trip overall to the Pacific islands of Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden has achieved tremendous mileage with her “Pacific Reset” plan.
In the overall context of the Pacific, Samoan writer, filmmaker and political commentator Oscar Kightley described Ardern’ s trip in his Sunday Star Times column as a testament of the fact that the islands she visited are immovable parts of the backyard of New Zealand. He said the duty of care by New Zealand from the day it took over as the colonising authority of such countries is still there. That might be so, but it seems from his observation that colonialist attitudes in New Zealand are very much alive when the Otago Daily Times published a cartoon that depicted the New Zealand prime minister going to the Pacific to hand out lollies.
Kightley countered that by saying that such attitudes are those of predominantly Pakeha Kiwi. And they are fed by their ignorance. Samoa for example, purchases $742 million worth of goods a year from New Zealand. The Cook Islands also contributes millions, except our scale is smaller than that of Samoa.
Well, was she out here in Rarotonga to give us lollies?
The cynical mind would say “yes”. A mind inattentive to the subtleties involved would lap it all up and pour heaps of praise upon Arden for what some people described as the “greatest gift of all by a New Zealand PM” - the enabling of Cook Islanders to qualify for the New Zealand pension without having to go and live in New Zealand after you turn 50 years old in order to qualify.
Yes, you can stay here and will be able to apply for your benefit minus that eligibility criteria. The details are to be sorted out in due course. Politically that was a bold move, but was it ever that difficult in the first place? I hope the answer will reveal itself as you read this.
While Arden said all the right things about education and women rights and her confidence was assured by the nodding heads in agreement from her audiences as they broke into laughter, songs and impromptu dances, I was more interested in something else that she said. In my view this was the most fundamental thing she said all tour.
It reinforced to me my position regarding the development of the Cook Islands as a nation. It says to me that she is not like her predecessors who hid behind the threat of taking away New Zealand citizenship to counter our faint cries for “nationhood”. I used the term “nationhood”, because it encapsulates all the things that a developing country needs to forge a sovereign identity, although I believe we are already sovereign in so many ways.
Arden said the Cook Islands forging its way forward to becoming a “nation” would not change the way New Zealand would treat the Cook Islands. Although she did not expand on that statement, it does however show her remarkable ability to shift herself away from the colonialist attitudes of former prime ministers John Key, Helen Clark and many others. Simply put they would rather keep the Cook Islands in the “no, you can’t” basket, while Arden in one breath opened the gate. That’s because she believes developing countries such as the Cook Islands must not be obstructed in their vision to grow. That to me is the true spirit of the notion for the Cook Islands to govern itself in free association with New Zealand.
Recently, Professor Alex Frame presented two lectures at USP as part of the Cook Islands Law Society’s education programme for its members.
From his lectures and also from the writings of fellow academic and lawyer Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter, emerged the position which Dame Alison states: “When the Cook islands became self-governing, there was a shadowy expectation that the free association relationship would be an evolving one, just as New Zealand’s relationship with the United Kingdom evolved between 1919 and 1947.
“Consequently, the very existence of the free association and also its terms has to be deduced from the provisions of the Cook Islands Constitution Act 1964, the accompanying Constitution and the solemn assurances and settled practices of the partner governments” (Alison Quentin-Baxter. “The NZ Model of Free Association: What does it mean for NZ?; Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, Vol.39 (4), 2009, p607-634, p611-612)
Dame Alison then summarised the constitutional relationship this way:
The New Zealand model of free association retains important constitutional links between the partners in the following manner:
1.The constitution of the self-governing State recognises that the Head of State continues to be Her Majesty the Queen in right of New Zealand.
2.The people of the self-governing State remain New Zealand citizens as of right.
3.The New Zealand Government has given a commitment to go on giving the government of the associated State financial and other support as it did before self-government.
4.There is an expectation that the laws and policies of both governments will reflect the shared values stemming from common citizenship. (Alison Quentin-Baxter, as cited above, p 613).
There are some arguments proposed on this view. I agree with the notion that an evolving free association relationship suggests that, “there is no limitation on the powers of the Cook Islands Parliament to make such changes as it deems proper to that arrangement including bringing it to an end.” (Alex Frame lecture notes- Session 1, p 5). And the procedural requirements would include modifying the Constitution of the Cook Islands with a two-thirds majority vote of Members of Parliament or a bill proposing such changes be put to referendum to the people of the Cook Islands and for the referendum to be supported by a two thirds majority (see Article 41 (2) of the Cook Islands Constitution).
Ardern has two things going for her. First she does not hold colonialist views as far as New Zealand is concerned with the Pacific countries and secondly she was very well advised about the status of the Cook Islands free association arrangement. I am hopeful of a much more open-minded approach to the journey of the Cook Islands.
The natural flow is that countries like ours will grow and will explore what is fundamental to their very essence - and that is the ability to be totally independent in governing themselves. But that does not mean they must do that in a vacuum. And that’s what Arden has left as a legacy.