Cooks PM: Aitutaki Call To Ban Sunday flights ‘Unconstitutional’

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Eight year battle continues; religious beliefs won’t affect decision

By Florence Syme-Buchanan

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Feb. 16, 2016) – Aitutaki’s anti-Sunday flights advocates won’t be pleased that the biggest hurdle to getting what they want is being set squarely before them – it’s unconstitutional.

Eight years on and the long running Sunday flights squabble looks to be even further away from ever being resolved.

Prime Minister Henry Puna is of the view that it goes against the country’s constitution for some Aitutaki Cook Islands Christian Church members to insist their religious beliefs be imposed on the island’s population.

Puna has been repeatedly asked by a number of Aitutaki CICC devotees to ban Sunday flights, and to date he’s refused for economic reasons.

Government won’t be forced to make a decision that’s based on a religious belief that would be imposed on all the people of the island, says PM press secretary Trevor Pitt.

"There is also the question of the constitutionality of the decision that the government would make because that decision would be based on religion".

Puna appreciates that an order to cease Sunday flights would open it to legal implications with regard to the constitution. "There would constitutional repercussions," adds Pitt.

He says Puna acknowledges that this is an issue that’s entirely apart from the economic impact banning Sunday flights would have on tourism for the Aitutaki people.

According to Pitt, the PM’s preference is for discussions to be kept amongst the people of Aitutaki "and for this to be resolved by the people of Aitutaki".

"Don’t bring the issue to the door of the national government, they’ve got to try and come up with a resolution themselves through discussion on the island".

Pitt says Radio New Zealand International didn’t get it quite right when it was reported that government won’t act on the results of last April’s referendum it organised on Aitutaki, saying whether to keep Sunday flights is now a non-issue.

"There’s nothing happening because it’s not an issue – it’s a non-issue because it’s not on the PM’s agenda to deal with", says Pitt.

He indicated that the PM has other priorities to deal with and the Sunday flights is still something of a thorn in government’s side because ‘there are people who haven’t let go of the referendum’.

RNZI reported that Puna had called the referendum as part of a campaign promise in the lead-up to a by-election on the island. The majority voted to end Sunday flights. But Pitt says the referendum results can be ‘interpreted’ several ways, therefore its value is questionable.

"The credibility of votes for and against are open to question".

He thinks it should also be questioned whether the referendum results really does reflect the ‘true wishes’ of Aitutaki people.

With unremarkable voter turnout, Pitt says it should be considered whether people took the referendum seriously enough – ‘maybe a number of people thought nothing is going to happen anyway so I won’t bother to vote’.

"It’s safe to say on analysis of the vote, it is just not convincing enough to tell the government that it must choose sides".

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