Cook Islands country brief
The Cook Islands comprises 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.
The Cook Islands is a parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II the Head of State, represented by the Governor-General HE Sir Fredrick Goodwin. 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.
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 November 2010 at which Cook Islands Party (CIP) won a clear majority, securing 16 of the 24 seats. The Democratic Party (DP) won the remaining eight seats
Although its per capita GDP is high compared to many other Pacific Island countries, 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 Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), including black pearl farming in the Northern Group of islands is another Government priority.
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 EEZ. In 2006, Australia completed a Life Extension Program refit of Te Kukupa to ensure the vessel's service life reaches 2021. 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 a minor donor in the Cook Islands in comparison with New Zealand (New Zealand provides approximately NZ$14 million per year). Australia is providing $4 million in official development assistance to the Cook Islands in 2012-13. Australia’s aid is 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, climate change adaptation and disaster preparedness.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard attended the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands in September 2012. She was accompanied by former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles. Mr Marles also visited the Cook Islands in March 2011.
Bilateral economic and trade relationship
Australian merchandise exports to the Cook Islands in 2011-12 totalled $7.14 million (principally alcoholic beverages, special transactions and commodities and internal combustion piston engines). Australian imports from the Cook Islands in the same period totalled $128 000.
Australians travelling to Cook Islands are advised to consult the Smartraveller travel advice website
Updated March 2013