Cooks PM: Politician Integrity Must Precede Political Reform

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Puna, Bishop trade accusations about ‘playing games,’ ‘excuses’

By Emmanuel Samoglou

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Oct. 15, 2014) – Politicians must improve their integrity before the nation’s political system can be reformed, says Prime Minister Henry Puna.

In an interview with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, PM Puna was asked by Radio Australia’s Richard Ewart on political reform – prompting the Leader to issue pointed remarks towards Aitutaki Member of Parliament and One Cook Islands founder Teina Bishop.

"With all respect, for me, the biggest issue is not political reform, but rather it’s political integrity," said Puna. "Reform is second to politicians having to undergo some form of reform."

"There’s no point in having a system where politicians are the same and they continue to play games," he said. "That’s exactly what Bishop is doing."

In the interview, Puna referred to what he says was a commitment by Bishop to support the Party with the most MPs after July’s elections.

With 12 out of 23 MPs - the current majority in a Parliament that awaits a by-election in Mitiaro next month to fill in the final seat in the House – Puna said he has the numbers and has earned the support of Bishop and Tupapa Member George Maggie, One Cook Islands’ two elected MPs.

Prior to July’s elections, Puna said Bishop made a commitment to support the party with the most MPs. Despite the declaration, he said he was not approached by OCI.

The PM told Ewart he was not averse to political reform, but said it "... has to be done at the right time... timing is very critical".

"Before elections, timing was perfect, but in any event the opposition didn’t have a bar of it," he said.

With a "completely different landscape", Puna said it would now be difficult to pass a constitutional amendment on reform.

When reached on phone in Aitutaki, Bishop laughed off Puna’s public remarks about "playing games".

"What I stated is that I would support the government of the day," he said. "He only has twelve MPs and, in fact, I can prove that he only has the support of 11."

Bishop was referring to a list believed to contain the names of 12 MPs and their signatures that he recently brandished in Parliament, and said could prove that he commands a majority of the House’s members.

Alluding to a series of meetings earlier this month between a number of OCI and CIP officials, Bishop said, "They don’t want us. They don’t even turn up at the meetings".

He further added that the Mitiaro by-election could swing in favour of a potential OCI-Democratic Party coalition, reducing Puna’s Cook Islands Party to minority status.

As a former CIP party president, he said Puna has been involved in coalition building and "... should know this is what happens in politics".

Bishop said he intends to follow through with a pre-election commitment and table political reform legislation as a private member’s bill, during an upcoming sitting of the House later this month.

On Puna’s stance toward reform, he said, "It’s just another excuse ... I’d rather focus on something achievable".

Increasing the stakes, Bishop said he is willing to put up the costs for a live one-hour debate on political reform and political integrity with the PM.

CINews lodged an interview request with the Office of the Prime Minister earlier this week to seek Puna’s insight on a number of issues.

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