Cook Islands country brief
Cook Islands comprises 15 small islands, spread over 2.2 million square kilometres, between American Samoa and French Polynesia, South of Hawaii. Rarotonga is the national capital. The islands are home to a population of approximately 17,500 people. There are at least four times as many Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and Australia.
Cook Islands is self-governing in ‘free association' with New Zealand, an arrangement dating from August 1965. Under the terms of the free association, most Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship and enjoy the right of free access to New Zealand and by extension Australia.
System of Government
Cook Islands is a sovereign parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II the Head of State, represented by a Queen's Representative, currently HE Sir Tom Marsters KBE. 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. Prime Minister Puna has held office since 2010 and was re-elected in 2014 and 2018.
Australia's High Commission to Cook Islands commenced operations on 17 December 2019. The first resident High Commissioner, Dr Christopher Watkins, arrived in March 2020.
Australia's relationship with Cook Islands focusses on shared membership of regional organisations, trade and investment, people-to-people links, and security cooperation. Cook Islands was a founding member of the Pacific Islands Forum, and Prime Minister Puna served as Chair in 2012.
Cook Islands' participates in the Pacific Maritime Security Program. In 1989, Australia gifted Cook Islands a patrol boat, Cook Islands Pacific Patrol Boat (CIPPB) Te Kukupa (Dove of Peace). Te Kukupa assists Cook Islands Police Maritime Division with surveillance in Cook Islands' 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. It will be decommissioned in 2022, when Australia will gift a new Guardian class Patrol vessel to take its place.
The latest census records that a diaspora of at least 22,000 Cook Islands citizens live in Australia, including in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Around 150 Australians live in Cook Islands, and a far greater number have studied in Australian universities. In 2019, 28,000 Australians visited Cook Islands.
Since 2015, the New Colombo Plan has supported more than 228 university students to study in 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.
Graduation to high income status
On 10 July 2019, the OECD Development Assistance Committee announced Cook Islands would graduate from the DAC List of Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipients, effective 1 January 2020. As a high-income status country, Cook Islands has been ineligible to receive ODA from 1 January 2020.
Australia has allocated $8 million over four years in non-ODA funding for Cook Islands following its graduation from ODA-eligibility ($2 million per year over four years from 2020-21). This will assist Cook Islands to remain engaged in key regional activities, including the PACER Plus trade agreement, and support its economic resilience.
Bilateral cooperation overview
Prior to ODA graduation, Australia's bilateral development assistance to Cook Islands 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. This support aligned with Cook Islands' development priorities as identified in the Joint Commitment for Development between New Zealand and Cook Islands.
Program highlights included Australia's support for the establishment of a crown-controlled entity, To Tatou Vai, to operate and maintain Rarotonga's reticulated water and wastewater systems, and support for Cook Islands' national sanitation policy.
Information on previous development assistance to Cook Islands [PDF].
Although its per capita GDP is high compared to many other Pacific island countries, Cook Islands' economy faces many challenges. These include relatively limited natural resources, remoteness from major trade and industrial centres, and a small labour force. Despite these constraints, 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 Cook Islands' large EEZ, including black pearl farming in the Northern Group of islands, and opening up seabed mining to harvest its large cobalt and manganese reserves, are government priorities.
More information on Cook Islands economy [PDF].
Trade and investment
Australia has a modest trade and investment relationship with Cook Islands. Two-way trade between Australia and Cook Islands accounted for approximately AUD100m in 2018. Australia is the fourth principal export destination for Cook Islands and its second principal import source partner. In 2020, Cook Islands and Australia expect to be founding signatories to the PACER Plus regional trade agreement.
More information on Australia's trade and investment relationship with Cook Islands [PDF].
High-level visits and meetings
November 2019: Prime Minister Henry 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, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, and Assistant Defence Minister and Minister for the Pacific Alex Hawke.
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 Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
July 2019: Visit to Cook Islands by Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
October 2017: Visit to Cook Islands by 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 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 Cook Islands and held bilateral meetings with his counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Heather and Prime Minister Puna.
July 2015: Prime Minister Puna attended the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Sydney.