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Corruption in the Cook Islands?

Saturday 21 January 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Economy, National


Corruption in the Cook Islands?
Groups where all/most are likely to be involved in corruption, Cook Islands. TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL/23012050

A major report into perceptions of corruption in the Cook Islands and other Pacific Island nations has caused a ripple among agencies. Cook Islands News journalist Matthew Littlewood looks into what is being done to address the issues here.

The Transparency International report, released late last year, sets out an array of issues and surveyed 279 people in the Cook Islands. It was publicised in Tuesday’s edition of Cook Islands News.

A sizable minority of respondents were concerned with large-scale corruption. Just over one-fifth (22 per cent) were concerned that companies frequently used their money to secure government contracts. Also, 18 per cent said the government was frequently run by a few big interests looking after themselves.

When asked which groups were most likely to be involved in corruption, Members of Parliament led the poll with 12 per cent of the votes, slightly ahead of public servants (11 per cent). 

Clerk of the Cook Islands Parliament Tangata Vainerere says they have established a Code of Conduct for Parliament, which was adopted in March 2021, but did not come into force until July 2022.

“We began work on the Code of Conduct back in 2015. We investigated into what other parliaments in other countries, in the Pacific and around the world, used for their codes of conduct. It involved sifting through tonnes of material,” Vainerere explains.

“That was the easy part, the tricky part was making something acceptable for the Cook Islands. We didn’t want to create something overly cumbersome. We wanted something that was simple to enforce and workable.”

According to the Code of Conduct, MPs must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They must not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships. 

Vainerere says the code has been effective so far.

The report also raises issues about civil society’s role in combating corruption. Civil society and the media play a critical role in highlighting and helping to address corruption in the country.

“The freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly are guaranteed by the Constitution. Still, access to government information can be difficult, and the government can be hostile to the media (According to the International Federation of Journalists, 2020),” the report says.

“Despite these difficulties, however, over half (54 per cent) of all respondents believed that ordinary people could make a difference in addressing corruption.”

Control of corruption index in the Pacific. Note: All figures from the Worldwide Governance Indicators database (Kaufmann and Kraay, 2022). TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL/23012048

Public Service Commissioner Carl Hunter has welcomed the report.

“Reports like this are always useful to receive, as it reminds us of the importance of adhering to the Public Service values of Honesty, Impartiality, Service, Transparency, Accountability, Respect, being Effective and Efficient,” Hunter says.  

“It also allows my Office to draw comparisons with other Pacific Island Countries in terms of their situations and how we fare compared to them. In this instance, the Report clearly shows that when compared to other States corruption in the Cook Islands is not something that is as widespread or serious. 

“However, we continue to strive to provide a public sector of excellence to the people of the Cook Islands, and work towards eradicating corruption in the public sector.”

When questioned about the study’s respondents concerns about appointments, Hunter says there are various policies that guide the recruitment of public servants. 

“My Office has been vigilant in requiring agencies to follow the policies, and OPSC will not authorise employees going on to government payroll without confirmation that the recruitment process has been followed by the agency or ministry recruiting a particular position,” he says.

The PSC does have a whistleblower policy, which Hunter acknowledges “is not perfect” and “it is therefore OPSC’s intention, with the support of collaboration from relevant Crown agencies such as Crown Law Office, for the policy to be strengthened in the foreseeable future”.

“I strongly encourage and urge anyone who is concerned about corrupt practices in the workplace of the public sector to stand up, step forward and get in contact with myself or my Office,” Hunter says.  

“Alternatively, if a member of the public is concerned about corruption in the public sector, they should approach the Ombudsman’s office.”

Hunter is adamant that people can make a difference.

“I can assure the public that corrupt practices will not be tolerated and so any complaints made relating to corrupt practices in the public service will be taken seriously, with my Office working with other relevant agencies including the Ombudsman’s office, and we are prepared to conduct a full and thorough investigation if we are of the opinion that there are grounds to any allegations or complaints received,” he says.

Ombudsman Niki Rattle says there needs to be more awareness in the public about the protections they have if they decide to become whistleblowers.

“I think many people are fearful of the repercussions,” says Rattle.

“What we need to do is have a policy that the people are aware of and provides protection. I understand there’s going to be some work on this policy in the near future.”

Ministry of Finance and Economic Management (MFEM) secretary Garth Henderson was unavailable for comment on Friday.

However, earlier in the week, he said: “I like the report’s independence. The summary findings are pretty much aligned with my own view. Corruption is not seen as a big issue here.”

He acknowledged there might be perceptions of corruption in the time it has taken to resolve several court cases, including those involving high profile government officials and politicians.

“Many of the perceptions of corruption that were registered in the survey were about things that were not in our control, such as the Court process, and the delay in cases. Government has no control over that.”

Government has been working on several anti-corruption actions, including the upcoming creation of a National Anti-Corruption Strategy. Henderson is also the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Committee which is a multi-agency committee featuring members from several Government departments working on finalising the Strategy.