I have heard many of our people refer to the Cook Islands as “paradise”; a place where we all live happily ever after. So in general we believe nothing bad ever happens here, oh well, occasionally I suppose. Indeed we have had our shares of occasions that we would rather forget completely.
Well, one of those rather nasty occasions has come to visit us. It was here when a former Cook Islands Party government used taxpayer money to pay for fly in voters in the 1970s. There has been much consternation by the public over recent revelations and allegations of corrupt practices by ministers of this Henry Puna led government. Some people have even expressed shame and anger at the same time for what they regarded as a gross betrayal of their faith in the cabinet of this country. What has been exposed thus far is apparently just the tip of the iceberg, and with implications that are far reaching one wonders just how far and by how much did some people benefit from these shady, unchecked deals. This is of great concern to the Opposition because it is tantamount to the sullying of a supposedly clean democratic political system that we have come to accept for some time.
The charges leveled against the Minister of Marine Resources Teina Bishop are difficult for me to comprehend and accept as true. The minister has been a very close friend of mine since I came into politics in a by-election in 2002. He had first won his seat and entered Parliament in the 1999 general elections. When he paired up, we regarded ourselves as brothers in arms and fought for justice, improvements in the outer islands and so on. While we were enjoined politically, we were however quite different. Bishop was a successful businessman running an empire that grossed over a million dollars a year, while I was absolutely penniless. He was a wheeler-dealer, while I was a sobering, boring academic. He was exciting and dynamic, while I was too serious most of the time. But as time went on, we drifted apart because of political differences and the stances we took on certain issues.
Today we hear and read of serious allegations of corruption against him through his association with the Luen Thai fishing company. If true he must resign. Whether the minister knows this, every other Cook Islander actually knows that “under the table envelopes” are part and parcel of the Chinese way of conducting business. I have been warned of this when I was a minister. I suppose then Minister Bishop and indeed the Prime Minister (with debts from his pearl farming business), Minister of Finance Mark Brown (a businessman of sorts), the Minister of Infrastructure and Planning Teariki Heather, a company director, would all be exposed to temptation by the inflow of Chinese money and riches into the Cook Islands. In a way all of cabinet would be vulnerable to Chinese generosity.
Worrying signs started to appear when trips to China or other places for our ministers and other government members of parliament were paid for not just by the Chinese government but also by Luen Thai. They also paid for meals, clothes, first class tickets and more direct island benefits such free fuel for example for Manihiki, or pearl farming materials of up to $1 million worth at the disposal of the prime minister. Further worrying signs that later amounted to alarm showed when Minister Bishop employed as his adviser a director of Luen Thai, the very company wanting fishing licences in our waters. It became critical red lights flashing when the minister and an associate teamed up to buy the Samade Hotel in Aitutaki. It is rumoured the partner was lent half a million dollars by Chinese interests to put up the funds for the purchase. It is known that the Minister of Finance instructed the Business Trade and Investment Board to allow the sale to Minister Bishop and his associate. The actual details of this will be revealed later.
Question: How much has Luen Thai infiltrated the government with its money? Do the ministers and the prime minister know that accepting gifts of such magnitude would compromise them and the integrity of the Cook Islands government because the donor has ulterior motives? It must be very deep now and of course we all know what Luen Thai wants; exclusive rights to fish in our waters and they will do anything to get them, which I presume the ministers regard as “apinga aroa” (gifts).
There is a saying “beware of the bearer of gifts”. I say that some heads need to roll or this government needs to resign and call a new election. This is too serious to let pass.