Cook Islands country brief

Overview

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 approximately 17,500. Avarua, the capital, is on Rarotonga, the Cook Islands’ most populous island.

Political overview

The Cook Islands is a parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II the Head of State, represented by a Queen’s Representative, currently HE Sir 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 and Australia. The Cook Islands retains close links with New Zealand.

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 the Hon Henry Puna. Prime Minister Puna has held office since 2010 and was re-elected in 2014.

Elections were last held in June 2018. Preliminary results were inconclusive. The Democratic Party won 11 seats, the Cooks Islands Party 10 seats, One Cook Islands Movement one seat, with independent candidates winning two seats. Following the election, the Cook Islands Party joined forces with the independents and One Cooks Islands Movement to retain government.

Bilateral relations

Australia’s High Commission to the Cook Islands commenced operations on 17 December 2019.

Australia's relationship with the Cook Islands focusses on shared membership of regional organisations, trade and investment, people-to-people links, and security cooperation including the Cook Islands' participation in the Pacific Maritime Security Program. In 1989, Australia gifted the Cook Islands a patrol boat, the Cook Islands Pacific Patrol Boat (CIPPB) Te Kukupa. 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 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.

People-to-people links

A diaspora of 16,000 Cook Islands citizens live in Australia, including in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

Since 2015, the New Colombo Plan has supported more than 228 university students to study in the Cook Islands in the areas of climate change, teaching, music, public sector management, law and nursing. The New Colombo Plan is an Australian Government initiative that aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region.

Development assistance

Graduation to High Income Status

On 10 July 2019, the OECD Development Assistance Committee announced the graduation of the Cook Islands from the DAC List of Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipients, effective 1 January 2020. This means that the Cook Islands will be unable to receive ODA from 1 January 2020. 

Australia has allocated $8 million over four years in non-ODA funding to assist Cook Islands following its graduation from ODA-eligibility ($2 million per year over four years from 2020-21).  This will assist the Cook Islands to remain engaged in key regional activities, including the PACER Plus trade agreement; and support its economic resilience as it graduates from ODA eligibility.

Development Overview

Prior to ODA graduation, Australia’s bilateral development assistance to the Cook Islands has focused on supporting the education sector, providing advisory support and training to empower and promote the rights of women and girls, and upgrading waste management and sanitation facilities.

More information on development assistance to the Cook Islands.

Economic overview

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 developing states. These include relatively limited natural resources, remoteness from major trade and industrial centres, and a small labour force. Despite these constraints, the Cook Islands has developed a successful tourism industry and the Government of Cook Islands has accorded high priority to its continued development. Developing marine resources within the Cook Islands' large EEZ, including black pearl farming in the Northern Group of islands, is another government priority.

More information on the Cook Islands economy [PDF].

Trade and investment

Australia has a modest trade and investment relationship with the Cook Islands. Two-way trade between Australia and the Cook Islands accounted for approximately AUD100m in 2018. Australia is the fourth principal export destination for the Cook Islands and its second principal import source partner.

More information on Australia’s trade and investment relationship with Cook Islands [PDF].

High-level visits and meetings

November 2019: Prime Minister Puna visited Australia as a Guest of the Australian Government, further strengthening the bilateral relationship. During the visit, Prime Minister Puna met Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.

November 2019: Cook Islands’ Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown attended the ‘No Money for Terror Ministerial Conference on Counter-Terrorism Financing’ in Melbourne, Australia, hosted by Australia’s Home Affair’s Minister the Hon Peter Dutton.

July 2019: Visit to Cook Islands by Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

October 2017: Visit to Cook Islands by the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, then‑Minister for International Development and the Pacific.

July 2017: then‑Minister Fierravanti-Wells met Prime Minister Puna at the Oceans Conference in New York.

October 2015: then‑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: then‑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 Puna attended the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Sydney.

Last Updated: 18 December 2019