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OUR TURN By Hon. Sir Geoffrey Henry, KBE Prime Minister, Cook Islands

If 1996 was the Year of Reform and if 1997 was the Year of Making-Reform- Work, then what will the name of 1998 be? What should it be? Several possibilities leap to mind.

1998 -- Repeat of Making-Reform-Work Year? This is tempting for 1996 was a crisis year and 1997 was a time to learn to live with the reforms and to enhance them as in the implementation of PERCA and the National Development Council. It was the 12 months when the Heads of Ministries (HOMs) or most of them learned to live within their budgets and run their organisations within contracted outputs. It was when Cabinet -- including the Minister of Finance -- had to live with the reality of the very reform that we put into place, not an easy matter. Some of us have been in Parliament for 10, 20 and 30 years with several tours in Cabinet as well. We would not be human if we accepted such massive change without doubts, re-thoughts and some agony, especially for those who lost their jobs and those who moved away. But, we did live with the 1996 decisions and so did the community as a whole. As a result, reform remained intact. Now let us give it a rest, simply letting the system continue to work as intended.

1998 -- The Year of Private Sector Growth? The private sector once complained incessantly that government was "too fat" and the tax regime "too burdensome." Now both have been reformed. The private sector once bitched that government "lacked transparency and accountability." Now, there are in place the watchdog PERCA and Ministry of Finance and Economic Management Acts. The private sector once charged that all public service appointments were political. Now, the Public Service Act makes HOM appointments largely the responsibility of a private sector committee. And so forth, on and on. As noted last week in the Cook Islands Press, we have one of the lowest ratios of cost-of-government to GDP in the world, a highly motivating 24% -- most especially motivating to those who would invest and those who would employ. It is time, I believe, that the investors and employers do more. Will they on their own volition organise a Private Sector Growth Retreat? Will they repatriate funds stashed overseas to expand their businesses? Will they shift their focus from concern for government to concern for themselves and the economy of which they are said to be the engine? Not a sure bet, as yet.

1998 - The Year of People Power? To date, the reform has seen an unprecedented level of consultation by government with the community. This has brought about a smaller government and a less centralised one. It is clear, however, that the reality of the latter -- of devolution -- has not yet been fully understood. Because of time constraint, the current budget for each individual island was by necessity prepared by the Ministry of Outer Islands Development (MOID). The trailing of the new administrative structure has, also, required MOID’s CEOs to report directly to the Secretary of MOID. However, in the new financial year budget preparation, the Islands Councils will take the lead role in dividing on priorities in respect to their own island and the CEOs will, for all intentional purposes, carry out the Councils’ wishes while, of course, still adhering to basic principles of governance under the MFEM and Public Service acts.

"Devolution" is the passing of rights from one to another. As intended here, it means "government-by-the-people" or people empowerment. Reform opened the door for the non-government organisations to fully express themselves through NDC and the National Retreats, for the private sector to boot strap itself upwards with, among other vehicles, the Development Investment Board and for the Outer Islands to run their own affairs. If these and other opportunities are grasped to their fullest, then 1998 will rightfully be remembered as The Year of People Power.

January 4, 1998

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