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30 November 2020

Jim Marurai: The unexpected prime minister

Saturday 7 November 2020 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Features, Memory Lane

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Jim Marurai: The unexpected prime minister
Former PM Jim Marurai passed away this week at the age of 73. 17071117

Former Cook Islands prime minister Jim Marurai passed away peacefully at the age of 73, in his Ivirua home on the southern island of Mangaia, where he was born and raised. Veteran journalist Florence Syme-Buchanan pens a poignant tribute to the former leader.

Born on July 9, 1947, Jim Marurai attended Ivirua Primary School, a barefoot young boy who would help his father in their taro plantation and the daily feeding of pigs after the day’s lessons. Oneroa Primary School about 10 kilometres away in the main township was next when the young lad entered senior classes. It was a distance Jim Marurai walked five days a week and if he got a lift to or from school, that was a real bonus.

Given a government scholarship, young Jim was shipped off to Rarotonga to attend Tereora College. He proved to be an excellent investment earning a place to further his schooling at Napier Boys High School before going on to study teaching at the University of Otago.

With his heart always back at home, Jim Marurai returned to Mangaia to teach at the island’s only college and become involved in many community groups. He was later called to transfer to Rarotonga and serve in various posts in central government.

In 1997, Marurai was convinced by the Democratic Party to stand in the 1997 Ivirua by-election beginning two decades of life as a politician and winning every subsequent election – two of which were as the unopposed candidate for his constituency on the west coast of Mangaia.

Jim Marurai was a highly intelligent, quiet, unassuming man who typified the expression that smart people don’t plan big moves out loud. Because he was reserved, the more outspoken, loud and opinionated politicians often mistook his silence for weakness; a misjudgement made at their own peril.

Skilled at reading the mood of Cook Islands politics with a well-defined streak of Mangaian stubbornness, Jim Marurai helped architect four successive coalition governments. He was a Cabinet minister from 1999 to 2004 when he then became prime minister.

He remained prime minister until November 29, 2010. When Jim Marurai retired from being the Ivirua Member of Parliament in June 2010 – he had notched up 20 years of political representation, a record for the village.

During his term as prime minister, Jim Marurai was known to avoid travelling overseas unless it was absolutely necessary – he preferred to remain in-country and leave the international meetings to his ministers. His overseas commitments included Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting 2005-2010, UN SIDS Conference, Mauritius, 2005, Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, Washington DC, 2009, Annual FAO High Level Conference, Rome, 2009, WMO Conference of Leaders, Geneva, 2010, COP21 High Level Meeting, 2010.

Following his retirement, Jim Marurai returned to his beloved Ivirua to live – making the transition from being the nation’s most powerful man to just another fellow at the local tumunu. He relinquished with ease life in the “fast lane” of Rarotonga, hurly-burly of politics and demands of being the nation’s leader.

Jim Marurai has been described as an “exceptional leader, navigating coalition craziness with aplomb”.

He undoubtedly survived the years of coalition turbulence by listening to politicians with much to say but not giving in nor following all the unsolicited advice thrown his way, keeping his inner circle of trusted advisors extremely close and following his own intuition, knowing to differentiate wise counsel from misleading, self-serving advice.

Trevor Pitt, who served as the late former prime minister’s media adviser for many years wrote:

“Papa Jim was a man of few words. But you could always count on those words to be honest, straightforward, and even very blunt at times.

As staff members, who worked for Papa Jim, we came to appreciate that level of honesty - especially since that era of politics was very unstable. We would often talk about Jim’s honesty and how unsuited he seemed to be for political life.  Politicians always seemed to be making deals and generated perceptions of self-interest. But no one thought of Jim that way. He was just too honest.

Our fondest memories of our former Prime Minister will also be about his humility.  His quiet nature was part of his humility. He was just so humble that the status and trappings as Leader sometimes made him uncomfortable. In some respects, he was a reluctant Leader – thrust into the job because of the political circumstances of the time – the aftermath of the 2004 General Election.  He went into the election as a representative of his island and emerged from it as the Leader of our nation. Such was the way that the political cards were dealt at the time.

As his closest staff, we would always provide the support he needed as Prime Minister - even though he would often refuse it.  He just didn’t want to deal with all the fuss.  That included a lot of the privileges and entitlements that came with the job so there were times that surprised the public when he did the unexpected.

There were times when I cancelled escorts and liaison because he simply didn’t want to draw attention to himself.

Once, we walked from the office to a function in town hosted by the Chinese. They were shocked the PM showed up without a Police escort and driver! Another time, the US State Department called me as they were surprised when I cancelled the PM’s security detail when visiting Washington DC. An unescorted country leader was unheard of even for a country as small as ours. Needless to say, every other Pacific leader was dogged by an entourage of security while we were ‘free’ to walk around the city unaided.

On another occasion, I convinced the PM to close the office for the day for some team-building. Nearly the whole of the PM’s Office staff walked across the island that day. Tourists at the Needle were gobsmacked to meet our PM at the top, in shorts and track shoes! Of course, he generously posed for photos.

Working closely with the man, we always knew just how far to push him. In that respect, Jim was very decisive.  His honesty, humility, and decisiveness, is what made him the Prime Minister he was. Among those three distinct qualities, we shall always remember the good times that we shared - not just as his support staff but as good friends too.”

Papa Jim’s longest serving staff member Rosita Taikakara began working alongside him as his personal assistant in 1999 – when he held the portfolios of Police, Education, Public Service Commission, Culture, Telecommunications, Head of State and the Religious Advisory Council.

“He was such a humble man and it was a real honour to work for a man that was not pretentious. Papa Jim was a genuine, good man and he had real strength of character,” recalls Taikakara who was the former prime minister’s most trusted gatekeeper the entire time he was in office.

“His honesty and kindness were outstanding and something I respected so much. When it was four o’clock, he would come to my desk and say, Rosita its 4pm and time for the family. Go home. I was grateful for that thoughtfulness because I had a young family at the time.”

Democratic Party leader Tina Browne stated that the entire nation bids farewell to a humble man from Ivirua who would rise to become a leader of the country and long-serving politician.

Jim Marurai was a good man. His absolute honesty, lack of self-interest and ego made him a very rare breed of politician.

Jim Marurai was a man that the people of Mangaia were rightly extremely proud of. We extend our deepest condolences to his children and family. Te Atua te Aroa.=

The funeral service for the former prime minister was held on Thursday in Ivirua. Jim Marurai is survived by five children and many grandchildren from his first marriage. His second wife, Tuaine died in September 2005 from cancer.