Select committees under fire after key bills delayed

Wednesday 2 December 2020 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in National

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Select committees under fire after key bills delayed
Cook Islands Parliament. 20032507

Observers have voiced exasperation over Parliament’s drawn-out process in progressing with crime, agriculture, and water management bills.

During its final sitting of the year last Friday, Parliament granted extensions of six months to select committees that have been tasked to examine the Crimes Bill, Agriculture Bill, and the To Tatou Vai Authority Bill.

As part of their mandates, the parliamentary committees are tasked to scrutinise the bills and provide recommendations to Parliament.

They are composed of Government and Opposition Members of Parliament, who are required to seek the public’s input into the law-making process.

The draft Crimes Bill, which seeks to replace the existing criminal code and in its current form decriminalises homosexuality in the Cook Islands, was granted an additional six-month extension after its select committee requested time to make changes to the bill after a public consultation process.

The draft bill does not include controversial sections in the existing crimes legislation, which labels “indecency between males” as a crime.

But an interim committee report submitted to Parliament on Friday requesting the extension claims out of 167 submissions received during the public consultation process, the “majority” want the status quo in place.

The current law says the offence of “indecent acts” between two males is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Unlike other reports, the Crimes Bill committee did not publish the names of individuals and groups who provided submissions.

Having previously described the delays as a “tactic” to stonewall same-sex rights activists, Pride Cook Islands supporter Dr Debi Futter-Puati is now questioning the committee’s conduct and the process that was undertaken to consult with the public.

“We have a real concern about the terms of reference of the select committee and the process,” she said.

During the public consultation process, Futter-Puati said she was aware that a number of submissions provided in support of decriminalising homosexuality, including her own, weren’t acknowledged as having been received by the select committee.

“I had to double check that  my submission was received, it wasn’t acknowledged,” she said.

“When we realised we weren’t getting responses, we started a campaign to ensure when people put in a submission they copied in Pride Cook Islands.

“We know that 63 submissions from that intervention alone went in support of decriminalisation, without the other submissions.”

The committee now awaits the Crown Law office and New Zealand’s Parliamentary Counsel Office to draft an amendment bill that updates the nation’s criminal code but will “ease the concern raised by the public” over decriminalising homosexuality.

The select committee looking at the To Tatou Vai Authority Bill - which grants authority to the Crown entity To Tatou Vai to operate Rarotonga’s water supply system – was also given a six-month extension to submit its final report.

The committee’s interim report said it had taken stock of submissions received during an initial series of consultations which took place in July, and following amendments to the bill, a second round of consultations will now take place.

Acting chair Justine Matatoa Flanagan from community lobby group Te Vai Ora Maori said the select committee’s “… business model is flawed if they required an extra six months” to produce their final report.

 “My hope is that within that six month period a redrafted bill will be made available for the public to provide feedback on,” she said.

Secretary Andy Kirkwood from organic growers group Natura Kuki Airani said he wasn’t aware why the Agriculture Bill’s select committee was extended for a further six months.

“I question why they have been lumped in together with these more complex bills,” he said.