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What do our politicians think?

Saturday 14 November 2009 | Published in Regional


1) What does political reform mean to you?

2) The economic task force has recommended that there be (a) 19 seats in parliament (10 natial-based seats plus nine constituency seats where the MP is mayor/in charge of local government); (b) that the prime minister be elected by the country; (c) that the PM appoints his own cabinet; and that (d) the PM’s and MPs’ terms be restricted – what are your views on the above?

3) Do you have any other views on political reform?

While Aitutaki MP Teina Bishop claims that he is a reformist, he does not agree with political changes proposed by the economic task force.

“Political reform is not only about reducing numbers in the house,” says Bishop in response to the questions put to him last week. “It’s about governance, it’s about making good decisions, it’s about leadership, it’s about a whole lot of things.”

“Democracy is about the people – by the people, for the people and of the people.”

Bishop does not believe in national-based seats but welcomes the idea of reducing MPs if one can come up with a suitable formula.

“You can’t just say that we should reduce the seats for the sake of reducing seats because when you are talking population, you are talking numbers.

“If you say that we should reduce seats because of costs, well we ought to look at the public service.

The public service has got an increase of $1.5 million in the last budget to pay for their wages. What’s $300,000 in savings to get rid of a couple of seats compared to $42 million which goes on personnel? That’s how much [$42m] our budget was 10 years ago.”

If one, suggests Bishop, uses a formula of having say one seat for every 1000 people, then islands like Mangaia and Atiu would have one seat, and Aitutaki would have to reduce its seats from three to two.

“All the islands must be represented in parliament but if we are looking to reduce the number of MPs, then we should set the formula now.”

And Bishop says if we are going to talk about parliamentary democracy, then Palmerston should get its own seat.

“Every island must be represented and if we use the principle that every island should be represented, then Palmerstonians should have their own seat because they have their own culture, their own island country, their own school, even their own language. Their small population should not be used as an excuse not to have their own seat.”

That the MP is mayor or in charge of local government in a constituency?

“That’s a lot of rubbish, we are already over-governed,” says Bishop.

On the prime minister being elected by the country?

“Rarotonga will end up deciding the PM every time because of its population.”

On restricting terms for the PM and MPs?

“Get yourself elected then you will know what you are talking about.

“Unfortunately we are not one big country – if that was the case, maybe we would need only five MPs.

Our islands are isolated and they need to be represented in parliament. If people want to change the way things are, then they should do by way of referendum and let the people make that change.”

Prime minister Jim Marurai says that he is in “general support of the recent recommendations made by the economic task force”.

And he supports this by pointing to the Constitution Day speech he made in 2007 during which he supported a drive to undertake political reform.

Back then he advocated limiting the tenure of PMs, ministers and chief executives/heads of ministries to two terms of four years.

Other ideas included reserving the position of speaker to a neutral, non-politician; establishing a workable formula to reduce the number of parliamentary seats, and exploring the benefits, or otherwise, of having a prime minister, who is elected by the whole nation.

“With a team driven by fresh ideas and vision, I shall be leading a concerted effort toward long-term political reform, and a strengthened resolve for better government,” Marurai said at the time.

“I acknowledge that many of the concerns of our people are focused on the cost of our systems of governance, and how that relates to performance and accountability.”

Back to 2009 and Marurai believes that any major change to the political system should be made at the polls – but put to the politicians first.

“The economic task force report to cabinet recommended some political reform issues. These reform issues have to be sold to politicians to accept. If the required two-thirds majority is unsuccessful, the reform issues can be referred to the voting public through the process of a referendum.

“I acknowledge there is a democratic right, and legitimate avenue, to formally petition parliament although my preference is for major reforms to be driven by way of referendum, which would be a clearer indication of the wishes of the voting public.”

In a nutshell Marurai says it is time to look carefully examining the system we have.

“Political reform to me means a careful look at our political system in terms of its sustainability, appropriateness and relevance and installing the required changes or reforms, approved by the voting population by way of a referendum.”

Opposition and Atiu MP Norman George is upfront on his views on political reform and questions the motives behind the economic task force for raising the issue.

“Who gave the economic task force the mandate to enter into the political reform arena?” asks George. “Our problem is economic recession – what does parliamentary structure and numbers have to do with world recession?

“I guess if the task force was asked to study the H1N1 influenza, they will say reduce the parliamentary seats in order to fix the problem.

“What the task force is saying will lead to a more expensive, less accountable type of government, with new Frankensteins to watch out for.”

George says parliamentary reform is the choice of the electorate, not anyone else.

“The little man in the taro patch – not the business tycoon – makes the decision.”

George says it bothers him when people keep talking of political reform without acknowledging the changes that have already been made and achieved.

He says that those pushing reform should do what businessman John Scott suggested and form a new political party based on nothing else but reform.

“Sell the idea to the electorate and see if they will buy it. The idea of pressuring and shaming serving MPs into making changes, without getting a mandate from the electorate, is a cheap form of experimentation and manipulation, at no cost to the manipulators.

“As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Minister Robert Wigmore believes that political reform should reflect the requirements of today’s changing world.

But that doesn’t mean that he agrees with all the recommendations proposed by the economic task force.

Wigmore doesn’t agree with the national seats although 19 constituency seats sounds okay to him. Where a MP should be the mayor or in charge of local government also doesn’t sit well with him.

“Local government has been abolished, so it is best to leave it as that.”

However Wigmore says he likes the idea of a prime minister being elected nationally and that the successful candidate gets to appoint his, or her, own cabinet.

Rakahanga MP Piho Rua believes in political reform but not at the speed being proposed.

“Do things slowly, not suddenly. My biggest concern is for the Northern group islands as they will be totally forgotten under these proposed changes.”

Pukapuka-Nassau MP Vai Peua says political reform is something that needs to be put to all the people, not just a few. Peua says that those proposing the changes have made the mistake of coming up with their recommendations before putting it to the people.

“The boss is the people.”

Apii Piho’s response to the questions on political reform is brief: “Let the people be heard.”

The recent overseas trip by Tengatangi-Areora-Ngatiarua MP Nandi Glassie has obviously done him some good and he has responded in full to the questions on political reform.

Political reform, says Glassie, is about correcting faults and evils in a government, in order to create a better society for everyone to live in.

“The challenge is for any government to continue removing social injustices and political abuses at all costs.

“Political reform is aimed at liberty, freedom of expression, rights of individuals, freedom from all forms of discriminations, political representation – in other words the right to live in a free and safe society whilst enjoying a better quality of life.

“Political reform is not the personal and sectoral grievances aimed at ‘pushing one’s own wheel barrow’ so to speak. To exercise reform is at the call of the voting population at large.”

Glassie says the recommendations made by the economic taskforce, beg the question whether it is there to assess political changes or stay within its brief of economics. “Politics deal with the exercising of power and authority mandated by the voters to benefit a society, and economics worry about the distribution of wealth within the scarcity of resources.

“Can the economic taskforce explain how they will solve the situation of one MP representing the three islands of Ngaputoru – particularly when each island has an inherited pride and identity to maintain and protect? Each island has a different set of needs and expectations. A similar question could also be asked of it [the taskforce] of their proposal to reduce MPs in the Northern islands. What are their solutions?

“One thing is for sure, the interest of the outer islands is paramount, and we need their political representation to endorse it regardless.”

Glassie says reducing parliamentary seats is at the bottom of an undemocratic nation.

“Under the democratic doctrine of collective and political representation, the more representatives of a wider sector of a society the better for a country. The world is heading this way. Just look at the representation in the New Zealand parliament – Maori Party, Greenies, religious interests, etcetera. There are also diverse political representations, ethic Maori, Asians, Indians, Rastafarians and so on.”

Having MPs as mayors, says Glassie, is not on.

“Mayors are elected at local government to cater for local needs and interests.

“MPs are elected to focus on the national interests, beside their own constituency responsibility. You cannot have a mayor deciding on both local and national budgets appropriations, this creates a conflict of interest immediately and normally leads to temptation of corruption – one of the very issues or ‘evils’ a nation should avoid.

“Mayors and MPs are politicians working at different levels with different focus. You cannot have the two in one. This is unheard of in Commonwealth countries, but can be easily manipulated in a dictatorial, communist, or military government.”

On the proposal that the prime minister be elected by the country, Glassie says this does not make sense. Although he does agree that the PM should appoint his/her own cabinet.

“How does it [the taskforce] see a prime minister being chosen by the whole nation, just after the nation has gone through a general election, electing MPs belonging to different parties?

“The tradition is for the majority and winning party to choose the PM, not the losing party? What if [majority] caucus disagrees with the nation’s choice?

“Does the taskforce envisage harmony from two or more rival parties agreeing on a choice of a prime minister?”

And restricting the terms of the PM and MPs?

“I absolutely oppose this,” says Glassie. “A nation will fall into the mistake of becoming ruled by inexperienced legislators. Generally speaking, it is the ‘old hands’ that maintain stability and wisdom in the House.

“It is not up to a ridiculous point of view such as this to determine that parliamentary term but that of the electors. The voters judge best. They know the best person with the right credentials and attributes to represent them.

“Can this taskforce tell me whether Papa Arapati or Papa Tom or Papa Tangaroa or Papa Pupuke were not great politicians in their twilight years? Not the taskforce’s call, but that of the people.”

Glassie says Cook Islanders should realise that our political history is short compared to many other small nations.

“For the first 64 years since 1901, we have gone through a colonial time where we were at the mercy of the New Zealand government – an administration based outside of the Cook Islands.

“In August 1965, there was a turn-around with Cook Islanders taking charge of ourselves through internal self government, other than defence and foreign affairs. We have adopted the ‘Westminster model’ from New Zealand for the past 44 years.

“My point here is having political reform based on no clear grounds, or no real fundamental or philosophical cause to change, is dangerous to a nation. Too many changes through political reforms are signs of a volatile nation with no secure base.

“What we need to look at is, not so much a reform, but a look at how else we improve our political representation based on the voters collective decision, not by some fly-by night riders.

“Like every reform, we need to carry out proper research first, before committing to changes that we may regret later. Political reform for me should move like a snail, slow and steady. Every person must by informed first.

After all, we in the Cook Islands do not fall into the category for change.

We don’t have national abuses, or threats of evil except ‘threats’ of perception by some liberal individuals.”

TJ Marsters, Leader of the Opposition responds in a letter to the editor dated Thu 19 Nov:

When the Cook Islands News weekend issue came out and I saw my name listed with those who had not replied, I did not feel ashamed at all, as in all probability was the intention of the Cook Islands News. I cannot say how those who were listed felt as they would have their own reasons for not responding.

As for me I felt somewhat bushwhacked and unfairly treated.

I say so because the Cook Islands News reporter who organised the questionnaire knew that I was overseas because he published an article on my trip a day after I left and that I was still overseas on the final date the replies were required! Furthermore, I would still be overseas long after the closure date.

It seems to me totally unreasonable of the Cook Islands News to list me along with those who did not respond when I was off the island and could not. It is highly possible that there are others, particularly in government, who were in a similar position, attending to parliamentary or government business in other parts of the world whose absence was not acknowledged but found themselves on the “shame list” of the Cook Islands News!

I am not demanding an apology. All I am asking is fair treatment, what is unquestionably due to every citizen of this country, politician or otherwise.

I am pleased my colleagues Teina Bishop, Norman George and Nandi Glassie have responded. They have expressed their opinions eloquently, intelligently and forthrightly as each is entitled to. I am in total agreement with the essence of their declared positions.

Political reform is not and must not be a fly-by-night exercise. It should not be undertaken without the problem being properly identified in a scholarly – NOT political – manner.

It is not just for the politicians to decide what manner of reform is to be adopted, nor is it just for the people of Rarotonga, after all what is democratic about that? What does each island have to say about how they are to be represented? Has anybody cared to find out?

What is it we are reforming? What EXACTLY is the problem? Has anybody clearly stated a researched answer? If the problem is the performance of those in government today, which is what I hear everywhere I turn, we all have a perfectly legitimate answer to that.

Let’s then implement that right, democratic and legitimate answer. Why chop the whole tree down when it is just the non-fruit bearing, dried-up branch that needs to be sawn off?