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Colourful politician and elder statesman

Thursday 10 May 2012 | Published in Regional


One of the Cook Islands’longest serving and most colourful politicians died in his Takuvaine home early on Wednesday morning after succumbing to kidney cancer.

Sir Geoffrey Henry, two-time prime minister, long-serving leader of the Cook Islands Party, was born in Aitutaki on November 16, 1940, as the 14th of 16 children parented by Arama and Mata Uritaua Henry.

In June 1965, he married Louisa Olga Hoff of the Ngati Uritaua and Ngati Marama family. They had six children – two girls and four boys, including one son who died, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Aged 71 years old, Sir Geoffrey died around 1am on Wednesday, surrounded by family and friends.

He will be remembered as one of the forefathers of Cook Islands politics, an elder statesman for the country, a ferocious advocate for his homeland, and a man with immaculate manners and intimidating oratory skills.

Sir Geoffrey first entered politics in 1965 at the young age of 24 as an independent member for Aitutaki.

He returned to politics in 1972 and was re-elected as a Cook Islands Party member for Aitutaki until 1983.

At the 1983 general elections, Sir Geoffrey stood for and was elected as the Cook Islands Party member for Takuvaine-Tutakimoa in Rarotonga. He was a cabinet minister from 1972 to 1978.

Sir Geoffrey first served as prime minister for six months in 1983 and again for another decade between 1989 and 1999.

In 1983 he also served as the acting prime minister for a period.

In the intervening years and until his ultimate retirement from parliament in August 2006, Sir Geoffrey served in various capacities as opposition leader, deputy prime minister and cabinet minister in opposition, ruling governments and coalition governments.

His career in politics saw him take on responsibilities over a portfolio that appears to have included every aspect of government management.

Sir Geoffrey was again playing a role in government upon the Cook Islands Party’s re-election in 2010, when he was named as the Speaker of Parliament. It was a position he held until his death.

During his life, Sir Geoffrey was awarded a range of honours including the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, New Zealand Commemoration Medal in 1990 for promotion of ties between Cook Islands and New Zealand, the Order of Tahiti in 1997 and a Samoan High Chief title of Afionga Tui Saua in 1992.

But it was in 1992 that Sir Geoffrey was given his highest honour, when he was named as a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) and forever after gained his title ‘Sir’.

Sir Geoffrey’s service to the Cook Islands also extended in to the realms of sport, culture, law, international relations, religion and education.

During his life, Sir Geoffrey was an active sportsman and spent time competing in athletics, rugby union, rugby league, tennis, golf and fishing events.

He represented the Cook Islands on the golf course in the 1979 South Pacific Games and earned a place in the Cook Islands Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.

From 2009 until his death, Sir Geoffrey served as the president of the Cook Islands Sports and National Olympic Committee (CISNOC).

Sir Geoffrey had attended Wellington’s Victoria University and had degrees in English, education and law.

As a young man in Aitutaki, Sir Geoffrey taught at the island’s junior high school and primary school.

Later, Sir Geoffrey acted as an agent for landowners in several cases and as a counsel in other courts. He was a member of the judicial services commission and a law clerk from 1980 to 1982.

From 1993 to 1995 Sir Geoffrey was the Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific.

On the international stage, Sir Geoffrey had an active hand in numerous affairs dating back to 1972 when he helped draft the working papers that established the South Pacific Forum, which is today known as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Sir Geoffrey worked to expand relations between the Cook Islands and New Zealand, while also acting to progress the Pacific through attracting greater economic investment in the region and promoting international relations within the Pacific and beyond.

At numerous points in his life, Sir Geoffrey represented the Cook Islands in high-level meetings through the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, Pacific Islands Forum, Asian Development Bank and many more bodies.

Sir Geoffrey’s life and career was not without its controversies.

CISNOC has drawn a serious amount of criticism for its economic management under his leadership since 2009.

The body’s economic faults even threatened to derail the Cook Islands’ participation in the 2011 Pacific Games and the government was forced to step in and bail out CISNOC of its financial troubles.

In 1996 and under leadership of then-prime minister Sir Geoffrey, the Cook Islands government declared bankruptcy, citing $120 million of public debt.

The crisis sparked an exodus of people from the Cook Islands and saw the public sector shrink as a result.

Two years earlier, the Sheraton Hotel project also went bust, the legacy of which remains as the decaying shells of the accommodation site in Vaimaanga today.

In 2010, Sir Geoffrey was involved in an odd incident in which he was removed from an Air New Zealand flight after commenting during a security search that ”someone back there thinks I’m a terrorist“.

Sir Geoffry later said that the flight’s pilot had overreacted and scolded him for not applying ”a modicum of commonsense“ to the incident.

The Cook Islands government is planning to hold a state funeral for Sir Geoffrey tomorrow to reflect on and commemorate the man’s long career in service of the Cook Islands.

Sir Geoffrey’s family plans to bury him at his Takuvaine home.

He is survived by his wife, Louisa, five children, Walter Tetaura, Ewen Tapukura, Alexander Tama, Marise Olga and Heiderose Matangaro, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.