Rethinking the Cook Islands’ free association agreement with NZ: Part 1

The free association arrangement between New Zealand and the Cook Islands is a pivotal force behind the movement of Cook Islanders between the two countries. Part of the Cooks’ way of life is understanding and leveraging the different opportunities that exist across the Cook Islands, New Zealand and further afield. This two-part paper, written by Evelyn in her capacity as a consultant on international development issues, introduces the free association agreement that has existed between the Cook Islands and New Zealand since 1964, and provides background to the historical and contemporary political relationships between the two nations. It also discusses the different concepts of citizenship and independence, and how these relate to the Cook Islands’ transnational population.

This paper began as a panel discussion on sovereignty movements in the Pacific Islands at the Jahrestagung des Pazifik-Netzwerks, and raises many important questions about “where to from here for the Cook Islands?” A full academic version can be found here.

Part 1: Historical colonial relationships and restructuring the ‘rescue’ package

The colonial relationships between the Cook Islands and New Zealand were formed during a period when New Zealand was becoming responsible for administration in the Pacific Territories at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1901, New Zealand took over as the colonial power in many parts of the Pacific, including the Cook Islands and Niue, and a colonial government remained in the Cook Islands until 1964, when self-government was discussed, planned and approved at the Sessions of the Cook Islands Assembly and by the New Zealand Parliament. This Constitution was initiated by the New Zealand government during a period when colonial administrations in the Pacific were retreating, and the self-determination of indigenous populations was heavily promoted by organisations such as the United Nations (UN).

National flag of the Cook Islands

However, both the Cook Islands and New Zealand recognised that the former would have difficulty in sustaining a fully independent nation state at such a small scale, and therefore the response of both governments was to favour that the Cook Islands be in ‘free association’ with New Zealand. Free association represented an alternative to independence that allowed Cook Islanders to govern their own islands and have full responsibility for external affairs. It also allowed Cook Islanders to retain New Zealand citizenship, use New Zealand currency, and to call upon the New Zealand government to assist in defence and foreign affairs matters. One of the most significant features of the free association relationship is that it continues to afford Cook Islanders the advantage of New Zealand citizenship. As such, free association between the Cook Islands and New Zealand plays a role in not only the population mobility of Cook Islanders, but also their access to social welfare and other benefits while in New Zealand.

“Free association represented an alternative to independence that allowed Cook Islanders to govern their own islands and have full responsibility for external affairs.”

Currently, more Cook Islanders reside in New Zealand than in the Cook Islands themselves, a phenomenon which can be traced back to the rising number of Cook Islanders migrating to New Zealand after the Second World War. During this period Cook Islanders were attracted to New Zealand for its employment opportunities in primary and manufacturing industries. However, Cook Islanders had been present in New Zealand since the 19th century. Sean Mallon* refers to early movement of Pacific people between the Islands, New Zealand and elsewhere as “regional traffic”, conveying not only the establishment of main thoroughfares between the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, but also disrupting the notion that New Zealand only became connected to the Pacific through the migration of the 1960s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, the extensive outward migration of Cook Islanders during the 1960s and 1970s, facilitated by a newly opened international airport in 1974, led to the growth of Cook Islands communities resident in New Zealand, and large-scale depopulation in the Cook Islands. The other key moment in the Cook Islands’ political history which heavily influenced large-scale migration from the Cook Islands to New Zealand was in the 1990s, when economic restructuring in the Cook Islands halved public sector jobs and removed government subsidies for basic goods and services. For example, in 1995, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Cook Islands government, providing them with the responsibility of investigating the economic situation of the nation. The Cook Islands at this time had been unable to meet international loan repayments and pay public servants and other creditors.

The ADB – as a major lender of development finance to the Cook Islands – along with other aid donors refused payments to the government until an investigation had taken place. During this investigation, which lasted a year, it was discovered by the ADB that development programmes had been overly ambitious; aid funding had declined from New Zealand; and costs associated with an inflated public service were high. The solution, according to the ADB was a restructuring ‘rescue’ package that mirrored the economic reforms implemented in New Zealand from 1984–1993.

“Development programmes had been overly ambitious; aid funding had declined from New Zealand; and costs associated with an inflated public service were high.”

The package, which was termed the ‘Economic Reform Process’ (ERP), was designed by representatives from the ADB, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. The overall aim was to reduce the number of government employees, by shifting towards ‘user pays’ for public services, enhancing government accountability and stimulating private sector investment. The implementation of the ERP, which is referred to within the Cook Islands by the local population as ‘the Transition’, was funded by another loan from the ADB.

The economic restructuring in the Cook Islands, as part of the neoliberal economic development of the 1990s, influenced population decline there among both the Southern and Northern groups. ‘The Transition’ for Cook Islanders also caused widespread unemployment, en-masse migration to New Zealand, and the  dislocation of families and communities. In some cases, the responses of Cook Islanders to global forces set in motion in the 1980s and 1990s have been positive, with the creation of transnational communities as one example. However, the depopulation of the Cook Islands during the 1980s and 1990s has had a lasting effect on the shape of the Cook Islands population, and the trend of outward migration to New Zealand and beyond continues.

This is part 1 in a 2-part series. Read Part 2.

*Mallon, S. (2012). ‘Little Known Lives. Pacific Islanders in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand’. In S, Mallon., K, Mahina-Tuai. & D, Salesa. (Ed.), Tangata O Le Moana New Zealand and the People of the Pacific (pp. 77-96). Wellington: Te Papa Press.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland, and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.