Stability, Protocol and Tradition

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April 26, 1998


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

Recently, I received the following written request from a local journalist: "Should not our own queens/paramount chiefs come before the Queen of England [in matters of protocol]?" Apparently, there has been some talk back radio discussion on the subject, which I view as a healthy interest in both our own traditions and in our relationship to the Commonwealth and to Queen Elizabeth II in particular. Let me respond with three points: historical, legal and personal.

In the late 1880's, France had annexed what is now French Polynesia, a move in keeping with the colonial posture of the times. There was armed resistance by our brothers to the east, but they were outgunned and lost. A French warship approached Rarotonga, apparently with the intent of annexing it, too, but is said to have turned back when a hastily sewn Union Jack was raised on a flagstaff.

Well aware of these events, the traditional leaders on Rarotonga made initial overtures to the British for protection and, as we all know, both the Northern and Southern Groups were included within the boundaries of New Zealand on 8 October 1900. New Zealand law took effect here a year later.

The point is that, unlike Tahiti, Hawaii, New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu, PNG and the Samoas, the colonization of the Cook Islands was instigated at our request. And, 65 years afterwards, our continuation in a special relationship with New Zealand -- and hence continuation in the Commonwealth -- rather a form of independence such as Samoa's was -- also, by our own choice.

Having chosen on two occasions -- in 1900 and 1965 -- to swear allegiance to the British Royal crown in its role as Head of the Commonwealth, our Ui Ariki also agreed to a protocol that placed both the British Crown and its representative ahead of themselves. And subsequently, when we took our place among the world's nations as a parliamentary democracy, we again made a choice, namely to accept an elected person, first a Premier, later Prime Minister, as our senior authority after the Queen's Representative and ahead of those traditional leaders who are not elected but inherit their titles and rights.

It is right and proper that we should continue to respect and honor our own traditional leaders, whomever they are. It is equally right to recognize that history is a voyage, not a harbor. Time does not stand still. Events occur, new concepts of governance emerge and some change is inevitable. What a healthy society seeks is a balance between the old and the new. What especially allows a society to thrive is stability – and that includes financial, political and cultural stability.

There will always be a radical or a thoughtless element that agitates for change only for the sake of change. And, apparently, the Cook Islands harbors a minority that would blindly alter that which has contributed to a century of enviable stability. Throw over protocol, they seem to say. Reject the benefits of our tried and true allegiances. In a world of rapid globalization and shifting alliances, they would rather go it alone.

While I respect the extremists' willingness to ask questions and explore options, I personally think any overt sign of disrespect to Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II and His Excellency the Queen's Representative to be arrogant, irresponsible and unacceptable. Let us be proud of whom we are and mature in our respect for all traditions, both ours and theirs.

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