NZ commits $20m to Cook Islands budget, $10.5m for public service

Cook Islands Government has secured $30.5 million in new funding during the 8th Cook Islands-New Zealand Joint Ministerial Forum held in New Zealand last week. MFAI/24052608

Cook Islands has secured $20 million (US$12.30 million) in Core Sector Budget Support and an additional $10.5 million (US$6.45 million) for continued public sector strengthening during the 8th Cook Islands-New Zealand Joint Ministerial Forum last week.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Tingika Elikana and Minister of Health Vainetutai Rose Toki-Brown represented the country at the annual meeting held on Friday last week.

They were hosted by New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters, Minister of Health and Minister for Pacific Peoples Dr Shane Reti and Minister for Climate Change Simon Watts. According to the joint statement on the forum, Minister Peters reiterated New Zealand’s steadfast commitment to supporting education, health, and tourism outcomes in the Cook Islands by providing $20m (US$12.30 million) in Core Sector Budget Support over the next two years, targeted at these sectors.

Prime Minister Mark Brown, who is also the country’s Finance Minister, tabled the $328 million (US$ 201.78 million) 2024/25 Budget themed “perseverance” in Parliament on 15 May.

It has been referred to the Public Accounts Committee for consideration and reporting.

In the proposed budget, the Government has revealed initiatives to support the education, health, and tourism sectors.

Patient referrals will receive an annual increase of $1m (US$615,000) to reflect actual expenditure. From 2025/26 onwards, the Ministry of Health will receive an additional $1m (US$615,000) to address recruitment and retention challenges.

Teacher salaries will receive a phased increase of $410,828 (US$252,741) from 2024/25 to 2025/26. Government is also providing additional funding of $4.7 million (US$2.89 million) over four years for marketing the Cook Islands as a destination to help support the investment in connectivity and $1.8 million (US$1.1 million) in funding has been allocated to destination development.

The Cook Islands and New Zealand Ministers also acknowledged the governance and development outcomes that had been derived from prior and current strong inter-agency collaboration between the two countries in areas such as border security (customs, immigration) and New Zealand agencies such as the Office of the Auditor General, Audit New Zealand, Ministry of Justice, through parliamentary exchanges and Public Service Fale and their counterpart Cook Islands agencies.

Minister Peters further confirmed an additional $3.5m (US$2.15 million) per year for the next three years in support of continued public sector strengthening and enhancing Cook Islands-New Zealand cross-agency cooperation.

According to the joint statement, the discussions focused on priority areas of cooperation in the relationship as set out in the Cook Islands – New Zealand Statement of Partnership (Waka Hourua/Vaka Purua) 2022-2025, including economic development, public sector strengthening and cooperation in education, health, tourism, security, infrastructure, and natural resources.

The Ministers of Health agreed to deepen cooperation on health, including progressing as soon as possible a new Memorandum of Understanding that formalises the health partnership and gives due recognition to health cooperation as members of the Realm of New Zealand.

They further acknowledged the value of cooperation through the Polynesian Health Corridors (PHC) programme and the Cook Islands welcomed New Zealand’s pledge of $30 million (US$18.45 million) over five years for phase 2 of the programme.

The effectiveness of the Infrastructure Trust Fund (ITF) as a mechanism through which to deliver climate-resilient infrastructure in the Cook Islands was also recognised.

The Ministers noted support so far for the Airport Slab Replacement Project, Manihiki Airport Improvement Project, and Te Tau Papa o Avarua (Avarua Town Plan Project).

“Ministers welcomed the earlier confirmation for the 2022-25 funding period of NZ$24 million (US$14,76 million) through the Kerekere Moana climate finance partnership arrangement, which will support through the ITF the Cook Islands’ Northern Group Renewable Energy Battery Upgrade Project programme and other projects,” the joint statement said.

“Ministers acknowledged the importance of energy security and the need for continued pragmatic, just and equitable transition to renewable energy.”

The Ministers acknowledged the need to formalise annual Prime Minister to Prime Minister meetings as a testament to the constitutional ties and to acknowledge the closeness and breadth of the relationship.

The Leaders meeting would be sequenced with the Joint Ministerial Forum and the Joint Ministerial Forum Working group.

They also tasked officials to develop a joint declaration to align with the Cook Islands’ 60th anniversary in 2025 to encapsulate the shared aspirations of both governments for the relationship.

“Ministers tasked officials to convene a Joint Ministerial Forum Working Group by the end of this year to develop a draft joint declaration for Ministers and Leaders’ consideration by first quarter 2025.”

Minister Elikana provided an update on the Cook Islands’ progress in pursuit of membership of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Commonwealth emphasising membership of the IMF would unlock various types of support.

“Ministers reconfirmed their support for the Cook Islands’ deeper engagement in international affairs and within the international community.”

Ministers Elikana and Toki-Brown were supported by officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration and Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health.

The Joint Ministerial Forum was established in 2011 to reflect the strength of the bilateral relationship and provide for an annual high-level meeting to discuss issues of mutual interest and importance.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the last Joint Ministerial Forum took place in Aitutaki in May 2019.