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OPINION: What should be our main priority in the next four years and beyond?

Thursday 28 July 2022 | Written by Petero Okotai | Published in Editorials, Opinion


OPINION: What should be our main priority in the next four years and beyond?
Column writer Petero Okotai. Photo: SUPPLIED

"This column is part of a few which I have entitled " Oversimplifications". The reason for this is that almost every subject, and indeed everything that I write, almost always merits something significantly longer, if not a book, to explain the complexity and nuances, analyse the pros, cons, and counter arguments... most of which I have considered, having dwelled on many of these issues for years. However, if I did include all of these thoughts, 1) I'd never finish any of these and; 2) there's not enough room in the paper. So remember, below is an oversimplification of a slightly more complex ideas and thoughts."

As I have previously mentioned, in an ideal world, elections are supposed to be a contest of ideas, with the people and parties who best represent the values and priorities of the people at the time…winning out. But also (as we’ve previously established), these ideas or policies are less vital in the outcomes of the election, however, they are still relevant, as these ideas are what will shape the country over the course of the next decade.

So, what are the big issues for this election cycle? What is most important? 

Let me start by saying the “legalization of cannabis” is the least of the country’s issues. I have heard supposed logic to having this a “non-binding” referendum is to attract youth voters, though it is a dim and probably inaccurate view of young and new voters to think that the most important thing to the youth of our country is “weed”. Additionally, the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis is a very complex issue, from a legal, medical and regulatory perspective. I am agnostic on the issue, but I do know that the government has not done nearly enough research and investigation for this to be taken seriously, and having this referendum without an informed debate being facilitated is basically irresponsible and negligent governance.

Putting that aside, the question remains, ‘what are the country’s big issues,’ and what should be the government’s main priority in the next for years and beyond?

The “A1”, numero uno priority should be education. And let me be clear, by education this does not mean building more fancy classrooms (though it would be nice if we could get people to stop burning them to the ground), it is the fundamental issue of improving our education system from pre-school, through to the tertiary level. Many might say that the economy should be the issue but and to that I would say that there is no more important determinant of a country’s future economic growth than education.  (Interestingly research shows there’s a similar correlation with health and education, i.e. education is one of the primary determinants of health… note Health would be number two on this list.. but today we only have time for one).

Over a number of years I have heard people voice concerns that our education system is on the decline, with their being the constant underlying anxiety of how it stacks up to New Zealand. This isn’t a recent sentiment either but with time, it seems to be growing as is the severity of this “decline”. Education is one of those policy areas where a meaningful change in approach today will only have a real impact in ten years (or longer), but if done well, will have the most profound positive impacts.

I have a longwinded treatise on education in the Cooks based on a bunch of anecdotal evidence (not the best place to start this discussion, but this isn’t an academic piece) … so let’s get into it.

The Cook Islands have in the past often punched above their weight when it came to education, much of this is due to the colonial legacy - not so much that we must thank our colonizers for educating us savages, but rather, in those times the administration of the country was colonial (White) which meant that often our best and brightest Cook Islanders were directed towards being school teachers. Our smartest taught the next generation, and so on and the role of school teacher drew a degree of mana and respect in the community. However, with self-governance, more Cook islanders moved into the public sector administration and as the economy grew as did private sector opportunities, by the late 80’s and early 90’s the role of “teacher” no longer retained the luster it once did. Perhaps the tipping point was the mid 90’s fiscal crisis, when the teacher’s college was closed down and the country lost entire families and communities. All of this meant that our best and brightest no longer look at teaching as a viable professional in the long term and gravitate towards higher paying jobs either in government, the private sector or overseas. The point is teachers matter, as much as any part of the system. We all have very clear memories of the good teachers we had who taught us to love a subject or at least were supportive of us, and we also clearly remember those teachers that were terrible Whilst this is anecdotal, we need to do more in retaining the good teachers we have and attracting other bright and talented individuals toward the profession. Having minimal experience coaching kids and lecturing young adults, teaching is one of the most challenging but (intrinsically) rewarding professions but moreover, one of the most important.

There are other cultural issues that affect our children’s education that again, can be traced back to the mid 90’s fiscal crisis where the exodus of persons led to the dissolution of the informal social safety net of the extended family and communities, single parent households are more and more common and moreover there is less familiar or community support for families and their children. In sociological terms we’ve moved from a collectivist society to an individualist one, which means that many of our children don’t have the same support systems that we had growing up, and our formal social welfare systems are not resourced or sophisticated enough to fill the gap that has been created.

Investment in education is an investment in the long term social and economic development of a country, and for whatever reason this investment has stalled in since 2015 there has been virtually no nominal increase in education’s budget (even pre pandemic) and in real terms (i.e. taking into account inflation)[1] there’s been a reduction of education spending of around 10%.

As a percentage of the total budget we’ve seen education spending drop from over 8.5% in 2015/16 to 6.5% this year. So ideally, we need to spend and invest more in education, but simply spending more will not fix the issue alone. Fixing our education issue is not only the most important issue but also the most complex. There has been generational decline and fixing it will likely take a generation (10 years or more). Often, we revert to thinking that changing the head of ministry will fix the issue, however it needs to be recognized that this is not a quick fix and there is no genius administrator or CEO that will fix this (and if there’s anyone that claims that they can should not be trusted).

 Addressing the numerous and complex issues in education will take a “whole-of-government” and in fact whole of society approach, and require some innovative thinking about how our culture can better support our children’s development, how we value and remunerate teachers and how we adapt to the changing world. But it is not going to be easy and it will take some time. Will our new (maybe ‘new-old’) government have the courage and patience to spend time and money on an issue that won’t instantly bear fruit, or will they just revert to the usually trick of building things that they can point at and touch and have opening ceremonies for… time will tell, but time is not on our side.

[1] based on NZ figures… as they’re slightly more reliable and a decent indicator of what’s going on in the Cooks