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By Jason Brown

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 24, 2002 – Cook Islands Star/Auckland)---Maybe it’s just Atiu. But there are growing fears that Coalition 6 is planning to win the next general elections the old fashioned way: buying votes.

Specifically, jobs for votes.

"Everyone seems to be waiting for a government job," says former Atiu mayor Roger Malcolm.

Pressed for details, Malcolm says he has seriously approached five people about work he needs done only to be met with the same response: "They’re not really interested. Some actually said they are waiting for Charles."

Charlie Koronui is Island Secretary on Atiu. He’s also president of the New Alliance Party, headed by Atiu MP Norman George, a politician who has moved his balance of power four times since general elections in 1999 to get what he wants.

George claims progress in the outer islands is his main priority. Others, fairly or not, see this irrepressible MP as doing anything to hold onto power. Including a return to the same kind of jobs-for-votes scam that worked so well for former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry – at least until the government ran out of money.


"My feeling is that it is a deliberate government policy to employ as many people as they can in the outer islands," says Malcolm.

"I would think the objective is the elections. It seems to be bloating the public service."

If that’s the case, then some of our politicians – and the people they are employing – have very short memories.

Thousands of Cook Islanders sitting around doing little or nothing while getting paid by government was what caused the economy to collapse in 1996, even more than huge foreign debt. Government simply ran out of cash. More than 5,000 Cook Islanders migrated overseas over the next five years, about a third of the population, leaving local businesses struggling for survival or turning to quick bucks in tourism.

That Figures

It has been over a year since the Public Service Commission released any figures on the number of government workers.

Under former Public Service Commissioner Cecelia Short, the PSC began releasing figures about every six months, along with responses to media questions about what the extra workers were for and how they affected the overall government reform program.

Since her resignation – which she insisted was not due to political interference in the commission – the position has been in doubt and the PSC has gone quiet on worker levels.

Early last year, public servants numbered just short of 1,500. At that time, the PSC justified the size of government as being, among other things, about 10% of the population. Appropriate, perhaps, for a tiny developing island nation, the commission suggested.

Since then, at least 300 public servants have been employed, especially under fat "Ministerial Support" budgets, criticized as "slush funds" by commentators. At the same time, the population continues to drop, with latest official estimates at 12,900.

Few people are truly superstitious anymore, but having 13% of the population working for government sounds worrying from any angle.

Add the fact that most of the population is made up of old and young people, and as many as a third or more of the ‘working age’ population may be in government.

Unlike the tourism campaign, this sounds like a recipe for true disaster.

Smell the Coffee

Effects of over employment are already being felt in Atiu.

"There’s coffee falling on the ground with not enough people to pick it," says Malcolm of one of the island’s few home grown industries.

Malcolm amiably confesses to "no love lost" with one of the Atiu coffee growers but he says the industry needs recognition by government, not competition for labor. As does his motel, the first on the island.

"You could use the argument that we’re not paying enough, but it’s what the work supports," he adds. Malcolm says he overheard two Atiu residents laughing about one of the coffee growers having to pick his own crop now there were plenty of government jobs.

"The pity of it is that they employ the best there is, the people who are already working and they draw them from private enterprise to public enterprise, where you don’t have to work."

As well as obvious loss of business, Malcolm says the hiring of increasing numbers of workers is contrary to government’s own stated policies of developing the private sector.

So how serious is the problem, really?

Malcolm points to the example of the island’s Infrastructure division, which handles areas like roads, water works, agriculture and, in the last week, conservation.

Since the start of the island’s road project, the division has grown from four workers to 30. Malcolm alleges many are employed full time, whether needed permanently or not.

But, as with just about every single area of government, finding out for sure remains difficult.

About as close as the country gets to good governance is how transparently unaccountable government remains.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands Star, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands Star.

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