Status: Self-governing in free association with New Zealand.
Capital: Avarua on Rarotonga
Population: 19,700 (2008)
Time: GMT minus 10hr
Currency: New Zealand dollar (NZ$)
The Cook Islands archipelago lies in the South Pacific, with the largest island, Rarotonga, 3,013km north-east of Auckland, New Zealand. There are 15 islands (Rarotonga, Mangaia, Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, Aitutaki, Penrhyn, Suwarrow, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Pukapuka, Nassau, Manuae, Takutea, Palmerston), of which 13 are inhabited. The islands, which form two groups, extend over 2 million sq km of ocean.
Area: 237 sq km (Rarotonga 65 sq km)
Main town: Avarua (pop. 13,300 in 2009) on Rarotonga.
Topography: The southern group of islands, which accounts for about 90% of the total land area, is of mainly volcanic formation. The northern group consists of low-lying coral atolls, except for Nassau, a sandy cay. The highest island is Rarotonga, rising to 653m at Te Manga, and surrounded by a coral reef. Most of the larger islands have lagoons surrounded by fertile soil backed by hills. Valuable metals, including significant amounts of manganese nodules, have been discovered on the sea bed and cover almost one-third of the Cook Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Climate: April to November: mild and equable (20–26°C). December to March: wet and humid (22–28°C). Average rainfall on Rarotonga: 2,030mm p.a.
Vegetation: Lush tropical on Rarotonga and the fertile southern group of islands. Vegetation on the coral atolls is sparse; mainly pandanus and coconuts.
Wildlife: There is a bird-nesting sanctuary on Suwarrow. Varied marine life, including coral-reef dwelling species.
Transport/Communications: A 33km surfaced coastal road encircles Rarotonga, while roads in the outer islands are not surfaced.
There are two deep-water ports: one in Rarotonga in the southern group and the other in Penrhyn in the northern group. Cargo for all outer islands is carried between ship and shore through passages in the reef in barges or lighters.
The international airport is 3km west of Avarua on Rarotonga. Air Rarotonga operates internal flights; Air New Zealand, scheduled services to regional destinations such as Tahiti, Auckland, Suva and Honolulu.
The international dialling code is 682. There are 343 main telephone lines, 339 mobile phone subscriptions and 254 internet users per 1,000 people (2008).
Population: 19,700 (2008); population density 83 per sq km; more than half lives on Rarotonga and some 74% in urban areas; growth 1.4% p.a. 1990–2008.
The indigenous people are Cook Islands Maori. There are 52,227 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand, more than 70% of whom were born there (2001 New Zealand census). Virtually all land is owned by Cook Islands Maori under a land-tenure system, which precludes its sale or mortgage except under very constrained circumstances. Land may be leased for up to 60 years, again under constrained circumstances.
Religion: Mainly Christians (Cook Islands Congregationalists).
Official language: Maori, English
Media: Cook Islands News (daily, in English and Maori) and Cook Islands Herald (weekly).
Education: There are 11 years of compulsory education starting at age five. Net enrolment ratios are 67% for primary and 70% for secondary (2007). The pupil–teacher ratio for primary is 16:1 and for secondary 15:1 (2007). The school year starts in January.
Tertiary education is provided by a teachers’ college, nursing school, tourism training school, trade training centre and University of the South Pacific extension centre. Overseas scholarships are available for university-level studies. Cook Islands is a partner in the regional University of the South Pacific, which has its main campus in Suva, Fiji Islands. Adult literacy is about 95%.
Health: Most health services are free, but new user charges are being implemented. There is a central hospital on Rarotonga, plus seven island cottage hospitals, and outpatient clinics, health centres and maternity/child clinics. The outer islands are mainly serviced by nurses. The entire population uses an improved drinking water source and adequate sanitation facilities (2007). Infant mortality was 14 per 1,000 live births in 2008. There is no malaria, but lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and gout are increasing.
Public holidays: New Year’s Day, ANZAC Day (25 April), Queen’s Official Birthday (first Monday in June), Rarotonga Gospel Day (25 July, only in Rarotonga), Constitution Day (early August), National Gospel Day (26 October), Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The Constitution Day celebrations begin on the last Friday in July and continue for up to two weeks. Most islands celebrate their own Gospel Day, as well as the National Gospel Day.
Religious festivals whose dates vary from year to year include Good Friday and Easter Monday.
Overview: The Cook Islands economy is based on agriculture (especially copra and citrus), fishing and tourism. The copra industry has declined. Clam and pearl oyster farming have been developed. Offshore banking was established in 1982. Tourism, largely in Rarotonga, accounts for around 40% of GDP. There were 94,000 tourist arrivals in 2008.
Despite the economy’s relative diversity, in the 1990s there was a heavy reliance on imports, a large civil service (almost 20% of the population) and many young people emigrated – largely to New Zealand – though remittances from expatriates make a significant contribution. After the mid-1990s, when growth was very slow, the government embarked on economic reforms including a reduction of civil service jobs from 3,350 in 1996 to 1,340 in 1998 and of ministries from 52 to 22.
There was a surge of growth in 2000 (13.9%) and 2001 (4.9%), before the downturn in long-haul tourism after 11 September 2001 and the reduction in air services in the Pacific region caused growth to fall to 3–4% p.a. during 2002–05.
Trade: Main exports are black pearls, pearl shells and fish; main imports are consumer and capital goods, food and live animals, and fuels. Main trading partners: Japan, Australia and New Zealand (exports); New Zealand, Fiji Islands and Australia (imports).
Aid: New Zealand is the main aid partner, providing some NZ$6 million annually in project support, but not, since 1997, budget support.
The islands were colonised by Polynesians during the 7th and 8th centuries. James Cook – the islands take his name – sighted them in 1773 and in 1789 Rarotonga was visited by the mutineers from The Bounty during their bid for freedom. In 1888 the islands were made a British protectorate and administered by a British resident. In 1891 an elective federal parliament was set up, but in 1901 it was abolished, following a petition by prominent Cook Islanders, and the country was annexed by New Zealand.
In 1957 a legislative assembly was set up, consisting of 14 members elected by universal adult suffrage. In 1962 the Assembly debated the question of the country’s political future and chose self-government in free association with New Zealand. United Nations observers attended the general election of April 1965, at New Zealand’s request. Albert Henry became the country’s first premier, after his Cook Islands Party won 14 of the 22 seats.
Under the 1965 constitution, Cook Islands is a sovereign state with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and a unicameral legislature, which has exhaustive and (since 1981) exclusive legislative powers (including constitutional reform); the New Zealand House of Representatives cannot legislate under any circumstances in respect of the Cook Islands. The parliament has 25 members elected by universal adult suffrage; elections are held at intervals of not more than five years.
The cabinet consists of the prime minister and between six and eight ministers of the prime minister’s choice. The House of Ariki consists of hereditary chiefs representing their respective islands who are elected annually. The House concerns itself largely with advising government on issues relating to land use and traditional customs. Local government consists of island councils, district councils (vaka) and village committees. Cook Islands residents are also New Zealand citizens.
Under a constitutional relationship, New Zealand may exercise, if requested by Cook Islands, certain responsibilities for its defence. Cook Islands has full constitutional capacity to conduct its own external affairs and to enter directly into international arrangements engaging its international responsibility.
Last elections: September 2006
Next elections: 2011
Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II, represented by the Queen’s Representative
Head of government: Prime Minister Jim Marurai
Ruling party: Demo Tumu
Since Cook Islands became self-governing, power has alternated between the Cook Islands Party (CIP) and the Democratic Party, later becoming the Democratic Alliance Party. The CIP was in power from 1989, and, after the by-election in July 1996, had 19 out of 25 seats, the DP having suffered a split and subsequent fragmentation.
In the general election in June 1999, the coalition of the CIP and recently established New Alliance Party (NAP), led by Norman George, gained a majority and Sir Geoffrey Henry, the CIP leader, was confirmed as prime minister for another five-year term. The CIP won 11 seats, the NAP four – one by one vote – and the Democratic Alliance Party (DAP) ten seats.
On the day of the elections, there was also a referendum on the government’s proposal to reduce the parliamentary term from five to four years. The vote of 63% in favour was short of the two-thirds majority necessary to carry the motion.
A period of political instability followed the elections when first Joe Williams of CIP became prime minister, and then, in November 1999, Terepai Maoate of DAP, who formed a government in coalition with George’s NAP.
This government continued until February 2002, when a vote of no confidence brought Dr Robert Woonton to office, forming a four-way coalition of DAP, NAP, CIP and independents. In January 2003, following reunification of the Democratic Party and a merger with NAP, Woonton formed a new government with a two-thirds majority in the legislature, and the CIP left the government and became the opposition.
The general election in September 2004 was a very close contest with a turnout of over 80%. The Democratic Party took 47% of the votes and won 13 seats to CIP’s 44% and ten seats. Several of the results including Woonton’s own narrow majority were challenged. After a recount he had the same number of votes as his opponent and then declined to stand in the by-election that was called for February 2005 and was unable to continue in office. In the ensuing parliamentary vote, Jim Marurai of the recently formed Demo Tumu party was elected prime minister.
When in July 2006 the CIP won a by-election and the government no longer had a majority in parliament, an early general election was called in September 2006. The ruling Demo Tumu won 14 seats and CIP eight. One seat was tied and CIP won the consequent by-election in November 2006.
Cook Islands News (newspaper): http://www.cinews.co.ck/
Radio Cook Islands (public broadcaster): http://www.radio.co.ck/