GOVERNANCE CONTEXT OF PARLIAMENT
The Parliament of the Cook Islands is a key part of the country’s overall formal governance structure, the State. This section places Parliament in its constitutional context by identifying the different parts of the State and outlines Parliament’s functions.
Head of State and Queen's Representative
The Cook Islands is a self-governing parliamentary democracy having the Queen of the United Kingdom as Head of State represented by the Queen’s Representative (QR). The QR carries out his functions acting on the advice of the Executive Government.
The Executive Council is the supreme decision-making body of Government and comprises the QR (as Chairman) and all Cabinet Ministers which includes the Prime Minister. Members of the Executive Council are appointed by the QR on behalf of The Queen. Its principal purpose is to advise the QR on matters relating to administering Government in the Cook Islands. In most matters, other than those matters reserved solely for a decision by the QR, the QR will act on the advice of the Executive Council. The most common form of this advice is a recommendation that the QR agree (‘assent’) on behalf of The Queen to legislation passed by Parliament so that it becomes law. In addition, the Executive Council has the responsibility of advising the QR in making senior appointments, such as certain Judges.
House of Ariki
There is a House of Ariki to which Parliament may submit questions concerning the ‘welfare of the people’ and on which the House makes recommendations.
The Cook Islands is in what is often termed ‘free association’ with New Zealand. Some features of this relationship are that Cook Islanders have New Zealand citizenship; and that New Zealand has responsibilities towards the Cook Islands for external affairs and defence. These confer no right of control and may be acted upon only after consultation with the Government of The Cook Islands.
There are three parts of the State:
- The Legislature
- The Executive (Government)
- The Judiciary
Part III of the Constitution of The Cook Islands establishes a parliament for the country and sets out its functions, primarily the making of laws and oversight of government. There are 24 members of parliament elected by majority vote and by secret ballot for single-seat constituencies in ten islands, island groups, and areas. General elections must be held every 4 years and everyone over the age of eighteen who is a Cook Islander; New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, and has resided in the country at some time for a period of not less than twelve months, may vote.
While the constituency and committee work of Members of Parliament continues all year, Parliament must sit only once a year. Subject to this provision, the decision that parliament shall sit or be dissolved is made by the QR on the advice of the Prime Minister.
An extremely important power and responsibility of parliament is that of making and maintaining Standing Orders. These are the detailed rules of order; procedure and behavior by which the legislature and its member perform their constitutional functions. In addition to the right to make, amend and repeal Standing Orders Article 34 of the Constitution sets out legal requirements such as who shall preside over a sitting of parliament, how voting is carried out and the minimum number of members required to carry out business. These rules are not arbitrary but are designed for the ‘orderly conduct’ of parliament’s proceedings and the ‘dispatch’ of business.
The Constitution describes parliament as ‘sovereign’ i.e. supreme, and it may be said to be so in several ways. Firstly, by virtue of its law-making powers; secondly, because it is to parliament that the executive government is answerable or responsible to between general elections; and thirdly, because parliament may amend the Constitution. Parliament is therefore in constitutional terms the center of the political life of the nation, and the place in which matters of the greatest importance to people are raised, debated, and resolved.
The second branch of the State is the executive government. The executive government is formed by the political party or coalition of parties which have the largest number of seats in parliament. The Prime Minister is normally the leader of this grouping of members of parliament. The QR on the advice of the Prime Minister appoints a Cabinet (Executive) of not more than 6 ministers having responsibility for the ‘general direction and control’ of the country’s executive government and is responsible to parliament. The executive government is dependent for its continued existence on maintaining the confidence of the legislature. It is important to make a distinction between members of the executive government (Cabinet) and those members not part of executive government but who support it. The former, i.e. Cabinet members, are often termed ‘members of the government’ and are a subset of the party or grouping of parties holding the majority of seats in the Parliament. The latter are often termed ‘government members’ who support and vote with the executive but remain private members of the parliament.
The third branch of the State is the judiciary. This comprises the courts – a High Court and Court of Appeal, presided over by judges as well as Justices of the Peace who also act as judicial officers, the decisions of whom are appealable to the High Court, Judges of the High Court are appointed by the QR on the advice of the Executive Council. In the case of other judges the Chief Justice makes the recommendation. Judges may be reappointed for renewable terms of office of 3 years. Appeal from decisions of the Court of Appeal is to the United Kingdom Privy Council. Justices of the Peace sit to hear less serious cases.
The Constitution of The Cook Islands explicitly recognizes fundamental human rights and freedoms such as:
- The right to life, liberty, and security
- Equality before the law
- Freedom of thought, conscience, religion, speech, peaceful assembly and association.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, national origin, color, religion, opinion, belief, or sex is banned.
Each part of the State – legislature, executive government, and judiciary – works under the important principle of the separation of powers and operates within its own circumscribed area as laid down by the Constitution, the application of law and the norms of parliamentary democracy. The efficiency and effectiveness with which governance generally is conducted depends upon the satisfactory working of each and a mutual acceptance of the limitations and scope of operation of each part.