Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cook Islands Government

The Cook Islands are a nation of a mere 15,000 souls, meaning the Cook Islands Government is responsible for around 35% of the number of people represented by the University of Auckland Student Government. This is tiny for a country! They were under the rule of New Zealand until 1965 (and were obviously British Empire at some point before that), but today the Cook Islands are a soverign state with free association. This means they basically get New Zealand citizenship and all the associated perks, but still get to run their own affairs.

And of course, in such a small country who's going to have a beef with a bunch of students showing up at Parliament?

Yes, this is Parliament, and has been since the 1970s when the random little building they were in beforehand was destroyed in a cyclone (Pacific hurricane- no, they do not call them typhoons here). So they needed a new building and saw the old guesthouse used by the contractors for the then-recently completed airport, and moved in "for a few years." Needless to say, they're still there.

This may sound odd to people like us, but things like this happen rather often in Cook Islands government because they just take over an old, abandoned space and convert it to whatever's needed. So you'll keep running into random governmental buildings all over Rarotonga, with occasionally entertaining results-

But anyway, back to Parliment! Which is curiously is a quarter of the island circumference away from the "capital city" of Avarua by the way... which is just a thickening of buildings alongside the road honestly...

Parliment in the Cooks has 24 members- it used to have an additional member for all its citizens abroad (you get Cook Islander citizenship if you're a decendent regardless of residency), but it proved to be too expensive so they dropped that one. We got to sit in the main chamber in the seats of the MPs while listening to a really interesting lecture about how the entire system works, so here's what the room looked like from my seat toward the Speaker's chair-
Note that little sign just to the left of the Speaker's chair, as it's very important. You see, when it says "Parliament" like it does in this picture, that means Parliament is in session. When it's flipped to say "Committee," on the other hand, that means a Committee is in session instead. Great idea, no?

If this all sounds a little silly, well, that's because it is: the government is the largest employer in the Cook Islands, to the annoyance of everyone who doesn't have a government job because, quite frankly, you don't need a big government for 15,000 people. It's rediculous, and it drains your economy terribly.

As a final note, because it's such a small population the major factor for running for MP here is to have a large extended family (and elections can be won by one vote, and in fact often are). They get to stay in office for four years, and while the salary seems decent initially it's apparently not so much because Cook Islanders expect a lot from their representatives we would never dream of from our politicians- if you need a loan your rep gives it to you without nessecarily wanting the money back, if you're from an outer island visiting Rarotonga your rep will give you a place to stay, if your great aunt dies your rep will pay respects at the funeral... all in all, a bunch of things that must be followed through with, because if they're not you'll vote for the other guy next time around.

It's all quite simple, really.