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'Acting for change’

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Rewriting history

Friday 1 April 2022 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Opinion

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Rewriting history
Columnist Thomas Tarurongo Wynne. Photo: CI NEWS/16040843

Is it time to pardon and rewrite the birth of our democracy and a man who contributed so much to who we are as a nation today?

In 2004, the then Cook Islands prime minister Dr Robert Woonton indicated that cabinet was considering introducing legislation to pardon the Cook Islands Party’s late leader, Albert Henry.

During an address at a function to celebrate the Cook Islands Party’s 40th birthday, Dr Woonton said Henry was one of the country’s great sons and that a pardon would bring back honour to him.

My question is, are we ready to discuss this again 18 years later in 2022 and set the record straight with regard to his place in our nation’s history and as a democracy?

For those of us who have read the many documents and court proceedings, newspaper clippings and commentary, none for me raises more questions than answers than the trial of Albert Henry and the proceeding judgment which came afterwards, banning him from standing for Office for the next three years, which was overturned on appeal.

Questions around the role of late Finbar Kenny, an American businessman behind the Philatelic Bureau operation in the Cook Islands, who potentially faced trial for breaching the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1977. Under this Act, it was illegal for any American citizen, or any American company, to make donations to any foreign politician or foreign political party.

The United States Justice Department launched an investigation in the US to try and find out if Kenny had in fact made a significant political donation to Albert Henry and his foreign political party. If charged and then convicted under this Act, Finbar Kenny faced going to prison for up to five years as well as a potential fine of up to $1 million, as prescribed for under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1977. Finbar Kenny had everything to lose, so turning on his friend to save himself was in his best interests, especially for those waiting in the wing to take power should this change happen.

To understand the situation, one must also consider the context of the time. Firstly, it is without doubt that towards the end of Albert Henry’s reign, corruption and nepotism had run rampant and there was a need for change.

He had signalled he would stand again in the 1978 election and there was little talk of a succession plan or of him stepping down.

However, the context at the time was that Henry was considered a communist and his nationalism was seen clearly as unfavourable to New Zealand business and political interests, and those business and political interests which had drawn him back to the exploitation of Cook Islands growers and planters, and the exploitation of our workers in Makatea of which my Uncle was one, and the setting up of the Cook Islands Progressive Association (CIPA) and eventually the Cook Islands Party.

To state the facts, Henry was never charged with electoral fraud, and instead on August 16, 1979, pleaded guilty to two charges of conspiracy and one charge of corruption relating to the use of $337,000 of Cook Islands government money (from the Philatelic Bureau that Finbar Kenney ran) to fly hundreds of supporters from New Zealand to the Cook Islands in order to vote.

He was fined the maximum of $1400 and ordered to pay $2000 court costs.

It was what happened next that should concern us all, when the Judge then took the unusual step of placing him on probation for three years for the purpose of restraining him from becoming a candidate for election to the Legislative Assembly, or for any other political office.

Far from giving such a guarantee, the former premier promptly declared: “In all the hearts of the people I’m still the leader of the Cook Islands Party, even if I keep quiet and stay at home. In 1965 I was barred from government too, because of the three-year residence qualification for candidates (set by the then New Zealand government to keep Henry out of our first elections). I climbed that. I can climb this one too.”

And with that an appeal was launched by his lawyer, the infamous Kevin Ryan in November 1979 which he won. All three New Zealand judges overturned the political restraint placed on Henry by Justice Doone, saying “just as the courts should be free from political interference, so politics should be free from interference by the judiciary”. This judgement clearly demonstrated the penalties placed on Henry were excessive and stopped his ability to stand as a candidate.

In 1974 Henry was knighted and subsequently stripped of this honour by the New Zealand government (then in charge of honours for the Cooks) after his conviction of a criminal offence in April, 1980.

In June, 1980 and despite the Democratic Party and leadership at the time, holding the line that they had nothing to do with Albert Henry losing his knighthood, the Pacific Islands Monthly June 1980 reported – it was “sad, but inevitable”, said then New Zealand prime minister Robert Muldoon, who recommended the move to the Queen (of stripping Albert Henry of his knighthood) after discussing it with then premier Dr Tom Davis during a visit to Wellington.

“It was inevitable from the time of his conviction and the nature of the charge. It is in accordance with all precedents in these things and there was no option but for it to happen,” said Muldoon.

Four months later the same Justice Doone who convicted Henry would be knighted and by the mid-1980s, Henry’s legacy, after his death, his national flag, his name and his reputation, would be erased like his knighthood, and our history as a democracy would forever be rewritten.
I have no doubt of Albert Henry’s propensity to nepotism towards the end of his career, or some guilt to the charges he pleaded guilty to.

However, I would suggest we consider there were more actors at play at the time and the open market democracy that proceeded, and the moves to ensure Henry could never stand again, erasing his legacy, signal more than maybe we understood was at play.

It then raises the question, is it time to pardon and rewrite the birth of our democracy and a man who contributed so much to who we are as a nation today?