WikiLeaks cable: Cook Islands High Commissioner sacked for plotting

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

March 22, 2006
Cook Islands High Commissioner sacked for plotting

date:2006-03-22T19:29:00
source:Embassy Wellington
origin:06WELLINGTON221
destination:VZCZCXYZ0000 RR RUEHWEB DE RUEHWL #0221/01 0811929 ZNY
CCCCC ZZH R 221929Z MAR 06 FM AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON TO RUEHC/SECSTATE
WASHDC 2551 INFO RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 4345 RUEHSV/AMEMBASSY SUVA
0453 RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
classification:CONFIDENTIAL
reference:04WELLINGTON1066
?C O N F I D E N T I A L WELLINGTON 000221

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/ANP DRICCI
PACOM FOR JO1E/J2/J233/J5/SJFHQ

E.O. 12958: DECL...
?C O N F I D E N T I A L WELLINGTON 000221

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/ANP DRICCI
PACOM FOR JO1E/J2/J233/J5/SJFHQ

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/21/2016
TAGS: PGOV, PREL, PBIO, NZ
SUBJECT: COOK ISLANDS HIGH COMMISSIONER SACKED FOR PLOTTING

REF: 04 WELLINGTON 1066

Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission David Burnett,
for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

Summary
-------
1. (SBU) On March 3, citing involvement in a plot to topple
him from Government, Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai
sacked Dr. Robert Woonton as High Commissioner to New
Zealand. Marurai succeeded Woonton as Prime Minister in
December 2004, and Woonton became High Commissioner as a
political accommodation. While Marurai's government has
averted a test of its confidence for now, a new threat is
likely to emerge in July, when Parliament must convene to
approve a new budget. End Summary

WQnton Sacked for Plotting to Topple Government
--------------------------------------------- ---
2. (SBU) On March 3, Cook Islands Prime Minster Jim Marurai
dismissed Dr. Robert Woonton as High Commissioner to New
Zealand. Marurai told Radio New Zealand that Woonton, ousted
Minister of Cultural Development Piho Rua, and
Wellington-based property developer Tim Tepaki had attempted
to bring down Marurai's Cook Islands First Party (CIFP)-led
coalition government. Meanwhile, opposition leader Sir
Geoffrey Henry claimed on March 2 that his Cook Islands Party
(CIP) had the support of thirteen seats in the twenty-four
member Cook Islands Parliament, as the result of the
defection of two MPs from the governing coalition: Rua (an
independent) and Upoko Simpson (CIFP). In 2005, Marurai had
dumped Rua as Minister of Cultural Development and Tourism.
Developer Tepaki is generally believed to favor CIP.

3. (C) At a March 3 press conference confirming the decision
to sack Woonton, Foreign Minister (and CIP member) Wilkie
Rasmussen explained, "In taking this decision, the Government
of the Cook Islands believes that Dr. Woonton has not acted
in the best interest of the Cook Islands, and as such no
longer enjoys the confidence of Cabinet to continue in the
capacity of Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand."
He continued, "The very nature of this appointment
necessitates a position of political neutrality in both New
Zealand and the Cook Islands." According to First Secretary
Sonya Kamana (protect) at the Cook Islands High Commission,
Woonton told her he had not done anything improper. However,
Kamana confided to Poloff that Woonton should not have been
as involved in politics as he was.

Instability represents more of the same
---------------------------------------
4. (U) While the sacking of Woonton has been characterized by
the government and media as a "failed coup," the event is
just the most recent sign of instability extending as far
back as the June 1999 elections. Since becoming
self-governing in 1965, there have been nine Cooks Prime
Ministers: four of these since the Democrats came to power in
1999.

5. (SBU) Following September 2004 elections (see reftel), a
series of petitions delayed a final outcome for three months,
including one concerning then Prime Minster Woonton's narrow
majority. After a recount, the high court ordered a
by-election, and Woonton had to step down from office as
Prime Minister. He was subsequently named High Commissioner
to New Zealand after he declined to stand in the February
2005 by-election. After the election, the four-member Demo
Tumu Party (now renamed Cook Islands First) joined
independent Piho Rua and the CIP in an unstable parliamentary
majority. Under the coalition arrangement, Jim Marurai
became prime minister and the leader of CIP, Henry, was
slated to take over the remaining two years.

6. (U) In September 2005, Marurai nullified the coalition
with CIP after having ousted Henry and two other CIP
ministers: Tom Marsters (Foreign Affairs) and Tupou Faireka
(Justice). Although CIP moved into opposition, two CIP
members remain as ministers in Government, Rasmussen (Foreign
Affairs) and Teina Bishop (Outer Islands). Replacing Henry
as Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Terepai Maoate is the sole
representative of the Democratic Party in Cabinet.

What's Next?
------------
7. (U) FM Rasmussen said that there would be no repeat of the
situation a couple of years ago when it took twelve months
for the Woonton Government to appoint Sir Tom Davis as High
Commissioner to New Zealand. In the meantime,
First Secretary Sonya Kamana will serve as acting
commissioner.

8. (C) Kamana confirmed to Poloff that Woonton intended to
remain in New Zealand. However, Dr. Woonton, who was given
three weeks to vacate his office, has since returned to the
Cook Islands. Kamana claims Woonton, a pathologist, had gone
to assist in a nine-year old murder case for which there was
new evidence. (Woonton was previously associated with case.)

9. (U) On March 11, Marurai announced that the Parliament
would not convene until June. The PM preempted critics by
saying that his reasons were not political but operational.
There are no bills presently before Parliament and the budget
has not yet been completed. Critics suggest that by holding
off on convening Parliament, Marurai is seeking to duck a "no
confidence" motion against his Government. Parliament is not
required to sit until July 1, when it must convene to approve
the new budget.

New Zealand MPs drop in
-----------------------
10. (C) In March, four MPs from the New Zealand Parliament's
Finance and Expenditure Select Committee made a trip to the
Cook Islands, where the members advised Cook Islands'
Cabinet, other MPs and the heads of ministries on good
governance and accountability with public money. The members
included chair Shane Jones (Labour), Hone Harawira (Maori
Party), Murray McCully (National, former chair) and Doug
Woolerton (New Zealand First). Murray McCully said that the
trip was a "serious undertaking" as some ministries, for
example, had not filed "annual reports for a few years."
McCully told Poloff that he has made eight or nine trips to
the Cook Islands over the years, and is well-acquainted with
the players. He said that there is an ongoing challenge
between the older and younger members for leadership in the
Cook Islands political parties. He told Poloff that, even
though Marurai claimed to be confident he would remain Prime
Minister, McCully "would not be surprised if there were a
change in government."
McCormick

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