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Thomas Wynne: Free association with New Zealand has never been free

Saturday 5 August 2023 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion


Thomas Wynne: Free association with New Zealand has never been free
Atiu Enuamanu maidens dazzled in their striking costumes. MELINA ETCHES/23080323

As we celebrated 58 years as a country, on the 4th of August 1965, we, like so many other countries reflect on that journey to statehood and the challenges ahead for our country today, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.

Like our constitutional partner and as a country of the Realm of New Zealand, we understand our journey as we see New Zealand’s ascension from a colony of Britain to a dominion in 1953 and then to complete sovereign status. For New Zealand it was never a question of if, but when, and for us, do we also pose this same question as we progress along this similar pathway.

In November 2018 a report was released by the Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson which finally equated the Pacific contribution to the New Zealand economy. That figure was a staggering $8 billion, that is Pacific peoples contributed by way of individuals and businesses to New Zealand’s GDP. In 2018, the New Zealand census had us at 80,000 or 20 per cent of the total Pacific population in New Zealand, a number probably closer to over 100,000 Cook Islanders now in Aotearoa.

So, what is our contribution to the New Zealand economy if we are 20 per cent of the Pacific population and 20 per cent of the $8 billion Pacific people contribute to the New Zealand economy. That figure is roughly $1.6 billion. If we are to arrive at what we give, what we work, what our blood sweat and tears contribute to the New Zealand economy then there it is, $1.6 billion per year, a figure we can point to, a figure we can be proud of and a figure that should cause us to reevaluate our position with New Zealand, and how we sit at the table with each other.

The other part of the report equated voluntary hours and in 2018 this report had voluntary hours at 27,000 per week, that our Pacific people contribute to the economy. A research report by the Ministry of Pacific Peoples found that 97 per cent of Pacific peoples spend around 66,035 hours per week on unpaid work and volunteering, equating to an average of 33 hours per week per person. Of this, 44 per cent of Pacific peoples contributed a total of $2.4 million of their own money to help others over four months, equating to an average of $161 per week per person – and when you consider our average wage is just over $40,000 a year this is considerable.

So, 20 per cent or what could be the Cook Islands measure of that 66,000 hours per week is 132,000 hours per week our people are contributing their time and energy, because we know our communities, churches, socials, dance groups, Metua, tamariki and people would not survive without our giving of time, moneys and skills. Even when that money is carried offshore, as we saw with the millions that were freely given and contributed to the celebration of the 200 years of Gospel in so many of our Islands, from the Pa Tokerau to Rarotonga and Atiu. Our people freely gave because their pito is still strongly connected back to our Ipukarea.

So have we earned the right to sit at the table again and discuss where to from here, with our constitutional partner New Zealand. Did we not contribute 500 plus men and bodies for their war efforts, despite not receiving pensions when they returned. Have we not contributed enough to the New Zealand economy, since the 1940s, with maids to rural New Zealand, men for the factory floors, and hands and feet for the picking of fruit, the slaughtering of dairy, the fields of sport and the halls of academia, government and health.

What should be clear is that leaving behind family, land, culture and language is a cost we have paid dearly to advance ourselves and our host country. Because free association with New Zealand has never been free, we have paid a high price for that relationship and one that needs to be considered as we celebrate our 58 years as a sovereign state, our constitution and the mutual journey ahead for the Cook Islands and New Zealand.