Cook Islands -
14 mins 9 secs - November 1996
Palm tree on beach at sunset
Nani: Long time ago there was this chief called Ru. Ru had four brothers and their wives and twenty young maidens.
They came through this passage and while coming through that, their canoe got stuck on one of the big rocks.
Reporter - Peter George: They call their islands ‘Heaven on Earth' but their legends are full of dreams gone awry.
Nani: Ru brought the young maidens on the island and asked his four brothers to help him salvage the canoe.
While doing that, one of his brothers got stuck under the coral and broke his back. And Ru named the island Akitua, after his brother's broken back.
Map of Cook Islands
Matunga and family in garden by utility truck
George: At the end of the 1980s, Cook Islanders looked forward to a rosy future.
Today, Matunga and his wife Ariki have given up.
They're leaving paradise for what they hope is better life abroad.
Matunga and Ariki
Matunga: The people in the community say why you run away, why you run from the problem. I say to them - this is my own opinion - I say to them, we are not the ones who create the problem. It's the people in the government, they should solve the problem
Matunga working with drill making ukuleles
George: The "problem" - put simply - is that the Government has gone broke.
Along with 2,000 other Government workers, Matunga's job is disappearing - the ukuleles he once made for a hobby are now a necessity to make ends meet.
Like most Cook Islanders, he'd simply relied on the politicians' assurances that all was well in paradise.
Matunga and Ariki
Ariki: The country is in debt. I think they didn't do anything for us.
Matunga: In my opinion they're only interested in their own pocket. They're not interested in the people.
Sir Geoffrey: Dad is expected to come home with the pay packet...
George: This is the man who's responsible: Sir Geoffrey Henry, Prime Minister these past six years.
Sir Geoffrey: ...dislocating experience.
George: And if feel betrayed by you and the government, is that a surprise as well?
Sir Geoffrey: No that would not be a surprise. Like I've said they've enjoyed many years of prosperity, particularly under our administration. And then to suddenly get hit by this - they're wondering what on earth is happening. "I mean, what is that fellow up there doing for goodness sake."
Transition Service building
George: They've got good reason to ask. In the 80s the Government borrowed to the hilt on the back of a tourist boom - only to find itself in the 90s with debts beyond its capacity and profits mismanaged at best, embezzled at worst.
Sheraton Hotel project
And there were no bigger failures than the Sheraton Hotel project.
Dog drinking from pool
George: There's no better symbol for what went wrong with the economy than the Sheraton Hotel project. It collapsed amidst scandal and mismanagement and cost the nation 80 million dollars, in one fell swoop doubling the national debt. Yet the Government that presided over this catastrophe is now saying to its people - trust us, we'll get it right this time.
Sir Geoffrey interview
Sir GEOFFREY HENRY
Cook Islands Prime Minister
George: Do you believe there have been intolerable levels of both ineptitude and corruption in the Cook Islands?
George: Well there's much suspicion surround the question of 20 or 30 million missing dollars from the Sheraton project for instance.
Sir Geoffrey: We know where that money went approximately and we know how it happened approximately. We cannot get to the facts because the construction company involved is now nonexistent.
George: Are you satisfied that there is no one from your administration who took money in that fiasco?
Sir Geoffrey: I am absolutely satisfied, no one has ever suggested to me the contrary, and no one has dared make that accusation in public because I'm not certain they can back it up.
Lloyd Powell interview
Lloyd Powell: Probably some of the people in it weren't even quite sure which was forward, because they didn't have the information.
George: If there was such a thing as a "receiver" for a bankrupt country, Lloyd Powell would be he.
George: Fed up with supporting the Cook Islands, New Zealand sent in one of its vaunted economic rationalists.
Powell: So what have you got to do, what you've got to do is get rid of your current liabilities here.
George: Who are your current liabilities?
Powell: These are liabilities to civil servants, trade creditors, back payment in wages.
Aerial shot of Aitutaki
George: Lloyd Powell's liabilities are people. They're the Government workers who can be found on each of the country's islands scattered across thousands of kilometres of the Pacific - islands like Aitutaki.
Matio reading in doorway
George: They're people like Matio - 24 years in Government service and now a shattered man - one of two thousand sacked under Lloyd Powell's auspices.
George: He sits alone in a room and reads the bible, his self respect in tatters - today his daughter supports him and even speaks for him.
Daughter: It 's very sad, it's very sad.
George: So it came as a terrible shock for you, I suppose?
Daughter: Well in a way I'd say yes. So many words you can say it 's painful
George: And Matio, it's painful your daughter says. Is that what you felt when you heard what was happening to you?
Matio: Yes, my friend.
George: If some are devastated by the crisis, a few have found it a liberation.
Nani in tourist bus pulling in beside government building.
Nani: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and kirana. Kirana means may you live on. The office on your left, that's the office I used to work for a long time. I was in government working for over 25 years...
George: Nani got out of the public service when she saw the writing on the wall - and she still thinks it's the best thing that ever happened to her.
Nani: I resigned last year and doing my own little business, taking special people around to see our little island.
George: Entrepreneurial vision is not a strong suit in the Cook Islands - but the Government and its New Zealand advisers are relying on people like Nani to show some initiative and re-start the country on the capitalist road.
George: When Nani transports tourists, she usually brings them here to the Government-owned Aitutaki Resort Hotel - haven for the rich and the island's major employer.
At night Nani sings here for her supper.
And that's the rub of the new economic order - the locals get piecemeal employment but they're shut out from any chance of owning a bit of their island's most profitable asset.
Tourists at resort
By day it presents a picture of utter tranquillity situated on one of the world's most beautiful coral atolls.
Following the dictates of its New Zealand mentors, the Government's flogging off hotels, airports and anything else saleable to raise money for its rescue package.
This little piece of paradise could have been yours for $1.8 million, less than half its real value. But the Cook Island government is so desperate to raise cash that the Aitutaki Hotel resort, with its 30 rooms, its 75% occupancy rate and a prime bit of real estate, is being flogged off at fire sale prices to an overseas buyer. And that infuriates the locals, the people whose millions of taxpayers' dollars have gone into developing the resort. They say they should have had a chance to run it for themselves.
Norm carrying chairs for meeting
One of the locals who tried to put together a syndicate to buy the hotel is Norm Mitchell. He tried to get the other landowners to air their grievances with us, but only his best friend George shows up.
George: I think you were going to have four or five other land owners here today. Why aren't they here?
Norm: Some of them gone fishing Some of them busy working and in fact some of them are camera shy.
George: Are they camera shy or are they shy of what will happen if they're seen talking to us?
Norm: There 's a lot. They're frightened of cameras, they're frightened of what the authorities might say and they 're easily scared off.
George: So how come you're not scared off?
George: So it's left to Norm to try to articulate their fears.
Norm: To us this is an opportunity where we can prove our worth. What we have learned from our little wanderings around the world. Come back here to build our own, our own inheritance, our own island and make sure the money we can harness stays here to help to beautify the place, to build up, but we are not given that opportunity to do so.
Matio cutting coconut
George: For many, like Matio, the opportunity will never come. Ill-equipped to deal with the new economic order, the Government has some blunt advice for them: go back to the land, back to subsistence living, back to another era.
But the reality is, the advice doesn't work. Like most islanders, Matio has a mortgage to pay, bills that pile up - and a few pigs and vegetables won't save him from ruin.
George: So people are going back to another era, aren't they? They're regressing 30 years or more, aren't they?
Sir Geoffrey: Not at all. In fact I think they are going forward.
George: What, because they are going back to planting again as a means of existence
Sir Geoffrey: Absolutely, absolutely. Because you see the problem has been the tendency to rely on government fortnightly or weekly pay packet. A dependent syndrome had developed over these years, carefully installed in us by our colonial masters. Thank you very much.
George: So the government's asking you basically to go back to another era?
Norm: Not asking us, it's forcing us there I reckon. It is really forcing us there. Because if they were managing the beautiful dollars that we are getting from overseas aid funding, hey I reckon we would have been - what they say we are - a little heaven on earth. Nah this is really pulling us back.
Matunga: Everyone is a fisherman, everybody's a grower. And who's going to buy their things? Say, for example, if you're a grower and I'm a grower, everybody's a grower, who is going to buy our vegies or our crops? Nobody. And we also want some money to buy things like sugar, Milo, and pay our electricity and our phone. We got no money if they are saying we have to depend on the land and the sea.
Kids with ukulele
George: Matunga's finished making his last ukulele. This weekend he leaves with his wife and children to try his luck with a job in Australia.
George: And to those who are deciding to pack up and leave and giving up and going to Australia and New Zealand, what do you say to them?
Sir Geoffrey: Best of luck.
George: Not say here and fight?
Sir Geoffrey: Well, I would rather that was the message that got to them, because I really believe in the future of this little place. A great deal of confidence in its future. And all we need to do is to be able to hang in there and hang out and work this period out. And together pool our resources together to get through this cloudy period. But if Cook Islanders want to leave, then, in the expectation of finding greener pastures in the dole queue of Australia and New Zealand, let that be.