Opposition Democratic Party says charter flights are for ‘political jaunt that will impoverish the government’ when it is struggling in Covid-19 crisis.
Government is taking a number of charter flights to outer islands to consult on projects it plans to undertake in the Pa Enua during the Covid-19 period.
On Tuesday, a team of Cabinet ministers heads to Manihiki and Penrhyn on a charter flight expected to cost around $35,000-$40,000.
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown rejected Opposition criticism of the spending in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.
Brown will accompany Prime Minister Henry Puna and Infrastructure minister Robert Tapaitau in the upcoming northern group tour. The Police patrol vessel Te Kukupa, carrying “small consignments” of cargo, will meet them in Manihiki.
He said it was one of a number of flights that government was undertaking in response to their commitment to bringing forward planned capital projects as part of their economic stimulus plan.
Last week, government chartered a flight to Atiu to recommence work on the roads there and to allow for the planned progression to Mauke and Mitiaro. There are also government officials in Aitutaki doing work on behalf of Cook Islands Investment Corporation.
There are scheduled charters for Pukapuka to take building personnel to commence the hospital project on the island next week. Biosecurity staff to ensure border security for visiting boats will be also be part of this charter.
“The visit to Manihiki and Penrhyn is to consult and meet with the communities about the proposal to bring forward the plan to seal Manihiki airport and also the Penrhyn cyclone shelters and the Tetautua hospital among other projects,” Brown said.
“It is timely that the Prime Minister, as the MP for Manihiki, could accompany us to facilitate the community meetings and fit in a constituency visit. For major projects such as what we are proposing it is vital that the political leaders are present to explain to our people. That is why Minister Tapaitau is coming up. He will be there as both Minister for Infrastructure responsible for these projects but also as MP for his constituency. It is not acceptable to pass this job on to officials.”
But Tina Browne, the Opposition Democratic Party leader, said the projects would not stimulate the national economy. Browne, the MP for northern group island Rakahanga, also asked for a seat at her own cost, but was told the flight was full.
“We understood that non-urgent projects would be deferred until a time when the country’s economy is in better shape,” Browne said.
“Spending millions that we barely afford to build hospitals, cyclone shelters and upgrading an airstrip in the Pa Enua doesn’t stimulate the overall national economy. It will impoverish the government,” she said.
“And … why is it Manihiki, Penrhyn and Pukapuka get the government’s attention for projects, but Rakahanga, the island I am the Democratic Opposition MP for, loses out?
"I believe this trip is for the PM, DPM and Minister Tapaitau to throw their support behind their favoured Cook Islands Party mayoral candidates on Manihiki and Penrhyn – and the taxpayer is footing the bill – understood to be around $40,000 – for this political jaunt that they trying to disguise as a necessary trip to look at projects."
Mark Brown said they were gearing up for a big year in capital projects as they promised in the economic recovery plan.
Consultation and keeping people informed was an essential part of the process, he said.
“Air Raro is one of the companies that were drastically affected by Covid-19, I am sure that any business that government can pass on to them is gratefully accepted.”
Tina Browne said nearly everyone who lives in the Pa Enua is employed by government, so if the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister genuinely want to create economic stimulus on Manihiki then they need to meet with the pearl farmers.
She said most of the pearl farmers now live on Rarotonga after the pearl farming industry took a massive nose dive in recent years.
“There are around ten pearl farmers still operating in Manihiki – around half of them are living on Rarotonga.”