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 King Charles III the Head of State, represented by a King'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 re-appointed as the 12th Prime Minister of Cook Islands on 11 August 2022 (CKT) following the 2022 election.
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 served as Chair in 2012 which it will again in 2023.
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.
Since 2014, the New Colombo Plan has awarded 4 scholarships and 277 mobility grants for Australian undergraduates to undertake study and work-based experiences 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.
Cook Islands participates in the Pacific Maritime Security Program. In June 2022, Australia gifted Cook Islands a Guardian-class patrol boat Te Kukupa (Dove of Peace) II. This vessel replaced the Pacific patrol boat Te Kukupa that Australia gifted in 1989 and refurbished twice, most recently in 2015. These Australian-made patrol boats assist Cook Islands Police Maritime Division with surveillance in Cook Islands' large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 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, patrol boats also provide a search and rescue capability.
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 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 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 was the final ratification required to trigger the entry into force of PACER Plus, which occurred 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
- June 2022: Prime Minister Mark Brown visited Australia to receive Cook Islands new Guardian-class Patrol Boat. He met with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Minister for Defence Industry and International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh and Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen.
- 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 then-Assistant Defence Minister and Minister for International Development and 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 then-Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
- July 2019: Visit to Cook Islands by then-Foreign Minister Marise Payne.