Cook Islands country brief


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 12 000. Rarotonga, the capital, is the most populous island.

Political overview

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. Under the terms of the free association, Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship and enjoy the right of free access to New Zealand. 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, with one tied seat scheduled for a by-election.

Bilateral relations

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, a modest aid program, 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). In 2006, Australia completed a Life Extension Program refit of Te Kukupa. 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.

People to people links

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.

Development assistance

Australia provides aid to the Cook Islands through a delegated arrangement with New Zealand. Cook Islands’ development is challenged by its narrow economic base, limited natural resources, fragile environment, shortage of skilled labour and relatively remote location. The economy, underpinned by tourism and marine resources, remains vulnerable to natural disasters, as demonstrated by Cyclone Pat which caused significant damage to key infrastructure in 2010, and a severe drought in 2011.

Australia is a minor donor in the Cook Islands in comparison with New Zealand (New Zealand provides approximately NZ$14 million per year). Australia expects to provide a total of $4 million in development assistance to the Cook Islands in 2014–15. Of this, an estimated $1.9 million will be delivered by New Zealand through a delegated cooperation arrangement agreed between the Governments of the Cooks Islands, New Zealand and Australia. This harmonised program targets improvements in water and sanitation, education and gender.

Australia will support the joint development assistance program with New Zealand as this continues to be one of the most effective and efficient ways to deliver aid. We will support priority areas under the New Zealand–Cook Islands Joint Commitment for Development, focusing on:

  • improving economic infrastructure and water management by upgrading residential and commercial septic systems to protect water quality in the lagoon, important to the tourism industry
  • investments to improve the quality of education, literacy, and numeracy, to develop an educated workforce ready to contribute to—and benefit from—economic growth
  • support to recruit a dedicated gender officer to implement new domestic violence prevention and women’s economic empowerment programs.

Australia is also funding a new initiative to help the Cook Islands Government promote disability-inclusive development through support for the sustainable implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability.

Economic overview

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 at the end of 2013 totalled $6.4 million.

High level visits

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.

Last Updated: 16 September 2014