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Tribute to a brave economic reformist

Saturday 12 May 2012 | Published in Regional


By Vaine Wichman
Development Economist

My admiration of Sir Geoff began when I was 14 years old. He would turn up with my brother in Vaima’anga partying hard. My sister-in-law was his private secretary back then, and I would visit her in their office.

I used to feel the enormity of his position then, the country’s youngest financial minister. Little knowing that one day I would serve him and our government to save the country from the pits of debt and economic mismanagement (1995-1997), and then to go on and be an apprentice to him during my parliamentary term (2004-2006) to manage the country’s finances.

There are some very important back office meetings that significantly shaped the course of our country’s history back in 1995. And those of us who were privy to those strategic meetings will know what I mean when I preface his person with brave.

Often in our country’s history, we remember people great and small who changed the course of our growth and development.

Our people organising themselves through the growers’ cooperative in the early sixties led to the decision to govern ourselves, and Sir Albert Henry’s visions to bring our people and economy into the modern world with the opening of an international airport. Sir Tom’s legacy to our people to diversify the economy. And Sir Geoff’s faithful interest to stamp our maoriness in everything we did.

All three went on to champion our Cook Islands-ness into regional and international significance.

But it was only on one captain’s watch that the economic seas shifted (okay it was manmade). But still those years provided an interesting challenge to the captain at the helm.

There were only two decisions that could have been made: either to reform the country’s economic structures forever: or to do nothing and sink in the unknown seas of international condemnation and manipulation and major economic slump as a result as declining confidence in the economy and people set in.

He chose to reform, and in so doing bravely set the country on a steadier course of fiscal management locked in by legislation that became a regional showpiece that other regional governments too scared to make bold steps were able to emulate.

Sir Geoff… I remember the first time I addressed him in this short form. We were at the Rarotongan Hotel in 1996 talking to our community and private sector leaders, and everyone didn’t know what to do, and kept looking at him. I was looking too. But back then, as now, I only saw one person, the young finance minister that I came to admire and then to serve, and now to acknowledge, who took the economic reform programme in his stride and changed those colonial fiscal structures to give our economy a fresh breath of life again.

Kia mau te selenga. Kia mau!