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. Avrarua, on the island of 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 Mark Brown. Prime Minister Brown was appointed as the 12th Prime Minister of Cook Islands on 30 September 2020 following the resignation of former Prime Minister Henry Puna. Cook Islands is scheduled to hold its next election in 2022.
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.
The latest census (2016) records that a diaspora of at least 22,000 Cook Islands citizens live in Australia, including in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. A far greater number have studied in Australian universities. Around 150 Australians live in Cook Islands. In 2019, 28,000 Australians visited Cook Islands.
Between 2015-19, the New Colombo Plan supported more than 220 Australian 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.
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 mid-2022, when Australia will gift a new Guardian class Patrol vessel to take its place, the Te Kukupa II.
On 1 January 2020, Cook Islands graduated from the OECD Development Assistance Committee List of Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipients. As a high-income status country, Cook Islands became ineligible to receive ODA. The COVID-19 pandemic has since caused a significant contraction in Cook Islands’ tourism-based economy.
Economic diversification is a priority for Cook Islands, including developing marine resources within its large EEZ.
Australia has allocated $8million over four years (2020-21 to 2023-24) in non-ODA funding to provide continued, targeted assistance for Cook Islands’ participation in Australian-led regional initiatives, in support of Australia’s Pacific Step-up objectives and to support the pursuit of economic diversification.
Through a targeted non-ODA grants program, Australia is supporting priority sectors in Cook Islands, including initiatives to advance private sector development, improved agricultural market access and export growth.
Information on previous Official Development Assistance to Cook Islands [PDF].
Trade and investment
Australia has a modest trade and investment relationship with Cook Islands. Our two-way trade was valued at approximately AUD13 million in 2018. Australia’s key exports were electric power machinery and parts, alcoholic beverages and meat; and the key import was fish.
Cook Islands ratified PACER Plus on 14 October 2020, becoming the eighth country to have ratified the agreement (Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Niue and Cook Islands). Cook Islands is the final ratification required to trigger the entry into force of PACER Plus, which will occur on 13 December 2020.
PACER Plus is supporting Parties to become more active partners in, and beneficiaries of, regional and global trade, for example through developing common protocols and guidelines to facilitate trade. As a trade and development agreement, PACER Plus includes a regional framework for trade related assistance. The framework brings with it Australian and New Zealand support to improve long term trade practices in the Pacific.
More information on Australia's trade and investment relationship with Cook Islands [PDF].
High-level visits and meetings
- November 2019: then-Prime Minister Henry Puna visited Australia as a Guest of the Australian Government, further strengthening the bilateral relationship. During the visit, then-Prime Minister Puna met then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison, then-Foreign Minister Marise Payne, then-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, and Assistant Defence Minister and Minister for the Pacific Alex Hawke.
- November 2019: Cook Islands' then-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 then-Foreign Minister Marise Payne.