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By John Andrews

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 13, 2002 – New Zealand Herald)---The new Cook Islands Prime Minister, Dr. Robert Woonton, has big plans for the first 100 days of his Administration.

Tax breaks for lower paid workers and harvesting the South Pacific country's largely untapped fish resources are among his priorities.

In his first interview since he took power a month ago, Woonton spoke about his aims.

He believes that by making better use of its marine resources, the Cooks can expand without having to depend so much on tourism, which brings in nearly NZ$ 70 million (US$ 29,988,000) a year and is the islands' main source of revenue.

Woonton wants to reverse the trend of Cook Islanders leaving in large numbers for New Zealand and Australia. If we believe the statistics, he says, in 20 years there will be nobody left in the Cook Islands.

"That is the dilemma we have been facing in the past 20 years, a very sustained loss of population.

"My prime objective is to ensure the economy of the country is sustained, the growth rate is maintained and our economic base is broadened."

His immediate goals include:

* A new tax regime lifting the non-taxable annual income threshold from NZ$ 6,000 to NZ$ 12,000 (US$ 2,570.40 to US$ 5,140.80).

* Lowering the cost of essential items.

* Reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots.

* Encouraging joint ventures with overseas companies to harness the Cooks' valuable migratory fish stocks.

* Developing the country's economic base to attract more people.

Woonton's longer-term aims focus on a NZ$ 800 million (US$ 342,720,000) grand plan for the capital, Avarua.

Projects include the creation of a deep-water port to cater for cruise ships, a 1,000-bed, five-star hotel on the Avarua waterfront, the lengthening of Rarotonga's airport runway to take long-haul, jumbo jets from countries such as Japan, a coastal protection plan for the township and an alternative power generating plant using ocean thermal technology.

"Feasibility plans have to be done but there is a lot of interest. We need a deep-sea port and fishing port. Maybe it will be next year before it starts," Woonton says.

"We have cruise liners hovering on the horizon but we cannot invite them to the Cooks to spend their money."

Extending the airport on Aitutaki, one of the Cooks' main tourist destinations, to international level is high on his Government's agenda. Aid for the project is being sought from the European Union.

Woonton plans to introduce legislation for a new tax regime within his first 100 days in office.

"It is about giving relief to the people," he says. "We are looking at levies, giving more buying power to the low paid.

"We are looking at eliminating duties on essentials and reducing it in other areas. Food, clothing and housing are the essential areas."

His financial advisers have said the NZ$ 12,000 (US$ 5,140.80) non-taxable threshold is achievable and, by setting a basic 30 percent tax rate, the Government's annual revenue will not be affected.

"With fishing there will be enough revenue for the Government. I am making the rich richer and the poor will be slightly better off. It will balance out."

The Government plans to revise its social welfare obligations, including raising by NZ$ 50 (US$ 21.42) the NZ$ 200 (US$ 85.68) monthly payment for pensioners who have no other source of income. The child benefit of NZ$ 30 (US$ 12.85) a month will be revised.

This, he hopes, will help to contain the population loss.

He also wants to make money available for the outer islands to develop businesses with a focus on tourism and fishing.

"We are in the process of developing infrastructure to support the fishing industry and encouraging the private sector to develop these facilities.

"It is possible over the next five years that it could translate to 50 percent of our tourism revenue."

Woonton agrees local stakeholders have voiced some opposition to his ideas, but he says South Pacific fisheries experts will help to work out a strategic plan. "Local people feel they should be given the first choice of fishing in our waters, but they are often not competent to handle navigation or engine breakdowns. They may know how to fish but many are without knowledge of the sea.

"We have two million square kilometers (800,000 square miles) of ocean and one fisherman will not fill it with two boats."

For additional reports from The New Zealand Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ New Zealand Herald.

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