The Cook Islands comprise 15 small islands, spread over 2.2 million square kilometres, northeast of New Zealand and between American Samoa and French Polynesia. The resident population is about 13,200. Rarotonga, the capital, is the most populous island.
The Cook Islands is a parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II the Head of State, represented by the Governor-General HE Tom Marsters. The Cook Islands is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, an arrangement dating from August 1965—their 50th anniversary of self-government celebrated in 2015. Under the terms of the free association, Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship and enjoy the right of free access to New Zealand and Australia. The Cook Islands retains close links with New Zealand, where it maintains its only diplomatic office overseas.
System of Government
The Cook Islands has a unicameral parliament with 24 elected members and a parliamentary term of four years. There is also a 15-member House of Ariki (Chiefs), established in 1966, composed of six Ariki from Rarotonga and nine from the outer islands. The Ariki advise the Government on land use and customary issues. There is full adult suffrage and registration is compulsory, although voting is not. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister, currently Henry Puna.
Elections were last held in July 2014. The Cook Islands Party (CIP) won a majority, securing 13 of the 24 seats. The Democratic Party (DP) won eight seats and the One Cook Islands Movement won two. CIP went on to win the Vaipae-Tautu by-election on 31 March 2015, consolidating their position in power. The next general elections are scheduled for 2018.
The Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand is accredited to the Cook Islands.
Australia's relationship with the Cook Islands is based mainly on shared membership of regional organisations, development cooperation, people-to-people links, and the Cook Islands' participation in the Pacific Patrol Boat Program.
In 1989, Australia gifted a patrol boat, the CIPPB Te Kukupa, to the Cook Islands. Te Kukupa assists the Cook Islands Police Maritime Division with surveillance in the Cook Island's large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Australia completed a second refurbishment of the Te Kukupa in April 2015. Through the Defence Cooperation Program, Australia provides in-country and Australia-based training in technical and professional skills, operational planning support, funding support for patrolling and ongoing maintenance. As well as maritime surveillance, Te Kukupa is also able to provide a search and rescue capability.
Australia is helping the Cook Islands build a skilled workforce by providing access to awards to individuals to further their education and professional development.
The Australia Awards provide opportunities for Cook Islanders to undertake short-term study and professional development in Australia. The awards enable individuals to gain the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to their country’s development.
Since 2015, the New Colombo Plan has supported 48 university students to study in Cook Islands. The New Colombo Plan is an Australian Government initiative which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region. In 2018, the New Colombo Plan will support a further 58 students in the areas of teaching, music, public sector management, law and nursing.
More information on development assistance to the Cook Islands.
Although its per capita GDP is high compared to many other Pacific Island countries, largely due to the substantial support it receives from New Zealand, the Cook Islands economy faces many of the development challenges common to other small island states. These include relatively limited natural resources, remoteness from major trade and industrial centres, and a diminishing labour force. Despite these constraints, the Cook Islands has developed a small but successful tourism industry and the Government has accorded high priority to its further development. Developing marine resources within the Cook Islands' large EEZ, including black pearl farming in the Northern Group of islands is another government priority.
Trade and investment
Australian merchandise exports to the Cook Islands in 2016-17 totalled $8.24 million.
High-level visits and meetings
October 2017: Visit by the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Minister for International Development and the Pacific.
July 2017: Minister for International Development and the Pacific met Prime Minister Puna at the Oceans Conference in New York.
October 2015: Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment, Senator Richard Colbeck, visited the Cook Islands to attend the Pacific Islands Forum Trade Ministers Meeting.
August 2015: Deputy Prime Minister Truss attended celebrations to mark the 50th Anniversary of Self-Government in the Cook Islands and held bilateral meetings with his counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Heather and Prime Minister Puna. This was the first visit by an Australian Deputy Prime Minister to the Cook Islands.
July 2015: Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, the Hon Henry Puna, attended the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Sydney.
March 2015: Foreign Minister Bishop visited Rarotonga and held meetings with Prime Minister Henry Puna and launched the New Colombo Plan in the Cook Islands. This was the first visit by an Australian Foreign Minister to the Cook Islands.
May 2014: Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Senator Brett Mason visited the Cook Islands to attend the Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders Retreat on the Pacific Plan Review, and held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Henry Puna.