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Government Ministries

A list of Cook Islands Government Ministries is available from the Public Service Commisioners Office

Voyage to Statehood

The Cook Islands Story

Settlement and First European Contact

The 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands were settled by migrants from nearby islands in what is now French Polynesia and from Samoa in the 13th century.

According to the oral traditions of both the Cook Islands and New Zealand Maori people, who share very similar languages, New Zealand was originally settled by canoe voyagers from Rarotonga.

Hundreds of ocean-going vaka [canoes] are thought to have landed in New Zealand from about 1000AD - both from Rarotonga and from other islands around the Pacific region. Rarotonga is the last Pacific Island on the sailing route to New Zealand and the island would have been where the canoes replenished their supplies before making the final leg of their epic voyages.

Given the well-documented navigational and sailing skills of the early ocean-going voyagers and the strength and agility of their double-hulled craft, it is quite likely that there were also some return journeys, according to some anthropologists.

The most legendary migration from Rarotonga took place in 1350 when seven vakas are reputed to have set sail from Avana Harbour to make the arduous voyage to New Zealand.

The Cook Islands was named after famous explorer Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy who landed on and surveyed a number of the islands between 1773 and 1777.

The Missionaries

Representatives of the London Missionary Society began arriving in the Cook Islands in 1821. After the early conversion of a number of important ariki (chiefs) support for Christianity increased rapidly throughout the Southern Group. Working through the ariki the missionaries drew up draft legal codes which together with the abolition of violence as a means of dispute settlement, led to unprecedented political stability.

In 1881 the British Colonial Office decided that New Zealand interests in the area needed some form of protection against foreign powers and the British Government granted a petition by local European traders and planters for the appointment of an unpaid British Consul for the Hervey Islands, as the Southern Group was then known.

In 1888, acting on a petition from the principal ariki seeking British protection, the British Government agreed to permit its then vice-consul in Rarotonga to declare a Protectorate over the Southern Group islands to protect pro-British islanders and New Zealand trade. Similar protectorates were declared over several islands in the Northern Group in the early 1890s. The Colonial Office also decided that certain other Northern Group islands should be annexed for possible future use as trans-Pacific cable stations.

In October 1885 the Colonial Office accepted an offer by New Zealand, which was then a self-governing British colony, for New Zealand to pay for a British Consul for Rarotonga on condition that he be nominated by New Zealand and act as the country's official agent.

This "Resident" was also to act as adviser to the ariki in drafting and administering laws and he would sign all acts of the local legislature in the name of the Governor of New Zealand. He would also have the right to reject proposed legislation.

In 1890 the newly appointed Resident persuaded the ariki of Rarotonga to form a provisional Rarotongan legislature or General Council, the first government for the entire island. The following year representatives of the ariki from Rarotonga and the Southern Group islands agreed to form the first federal legislature in the islands.

However the path through the last decade of the 19th century was far from smooth and the numerous changes that took place were not well accepted by the traditional leaders. Ill feeling between the islanders and New Zealand reached a point where two ariki told the New Zealand premier that the traditional leaders wanted the Cook Islands to be annexed to Great Britain.

On 27 September 1900 the New Zealand Parliament approved the annexation of the islands to New Zealand and the following month the British Governor in New Zealand landed at Rarotonga. Without any discussion on its implications, the ariki and other traditional leaders signed a deed of cession and from June 11, 1901 the boundaries of New Zealand were extended to include the Cook Islands.

In spite of the fact that the ariki and local government had told a visiting New Zealand parliamentary mission in 1903 that they wanted to remain independent in legislative matters and that the Cook Islands were, under the terms of the annexation a self-governing community under the British Crown, by 1909 the first New Zealand Resident Commissioner and the Minister of Island Territories had taken almost complete responsibility for the administration of the Cook Islands.

Enactments of the New Zealand Parliament had the effect of doing away with the Federal Council by 1915. The New Zealand Parliament would legislate for the Cook Islands, while the laws of England at the time New Zealand had become a colony (January 1840), were also applied to the Cook Islands unless contravened by legislation.

Post-War Period

The early post-war World War Two period brought steady improvement to social and economic infrastructural facilities in the Cook Islands and there were several attempts to promote economic development programmes. Steps were also taken to give a greater degree of political authority to the Territorial Government.

By the mid-1950s, in spite of attempts by New Zealand to stimulate the Cook Islands' economy, emigration continued throughout the 1960s, particularly of young and ambitious Cook Islanders seeking better job opportunities and a brighter future for themselves and their families. By 1963 about 6000 Cook Islanders were living in New Zealand. They sent large amounts of money to relatives back home which had the effect of increasing the annual per capita income in 1965 by 10 pounds.

However the Cook Islands was about to embark on a major new course.

In 1962 New Zealand Minister of Island Territories Sir Leon Gotz invited the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly to consider four alternative courses for the country's future. The most practical of these was full internal self-government whereby the Cook Islands people would remain New Zealand citizens with the right of free entry into New Zealand for both themselves and their produce. The Cook Islands would be responsible for the management of its own territory.

The day after Sir Leon's invitation, the Legislative Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution choosing self-government while at the same time asking New Zealand to preserve for the people their status as New Zealand citizens.

On 17 November 1964 the New Zealand Parliament passed the Cook Islands Constitution Act. This was to come into force on a date requested by the Cook Islands legislature following general elections to be held in the Territory.

The elections were held on 20 April 1965, with resounding support for the proposed Constitution and self-government. On 26 July the New Zealand passed the Cook Islands Constitution Amendment Act and the Cook Islands became a State in free association with New Zealand.

The free association agreement means:

  • The Cook Islands Government has full executive powers.
  • The Cook Islands can make its own laws and New Zealand cannot make laws for the country unless authorised by government.
  • Cook Islanders keep New Zealand citizenship
  • The Cook Islands remains part of the Realm of New Zealand and Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of the Cook Islands.


As part of its defence cooperation programme with the States of the South Pacific region, New Zealand had for many years conducted military exercises in the area. They were aimed at increasing the military's ability to respond quickly and effectively to requests for assistance.

In the early 1990s the Cook Islands and New Zealand agreed that given the evolution of their free association relationship since 1965 to one based on international law and conventional diplomatic practice, it was appropriate to place military exercises on a more formal basis. This resulted in another Exchange of Letters constituting an agreement between the governments on arrangements for visits by the New Zealand Armed Forces.

This and other earlier agreements clearly reflected the fact that control over both external affairs and defence rests entirely with the Cook Islands government.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force maintains regular maritime patrols in Cook Islands waters as part of its commitment to monitoring the Exclusive Economic Zones of a number of Pacific Island States and a Royal New Zealand Navy representative works with the Cook Islands Police Service’s Maritime Section, providing technical skills to help maintain the police patrol boat Te Kukupa which was donated by the Australian Royal Navy.

A Mutual Assistance Programme administered by the New Zealand Defence Force supports operation of the patrol boat and provides training in search and rescue, small arms use and diving.

The First Decade of Free Association

For much of the first decade of free association the Government's efforts focused on domestic affairs and the implementation of basic social and economic programmes. The aim was to promote national development and reduce the Cook Islands' dependence on New Zealand aid. The Cook Islands relied upon New Zealand to monitor treaty matters and international affairs on its behalf and to seek the Cook Islands' involvement whenever necessary.

In early 1972 the newly-formed South Pacific Forum established by treaty the South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation (SPEC). The SPEC Agreement, signed by Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Tonga and Western Samoan in 1973, was the first treaty in which the Cook Islands and New Zealand participated as separate but equal parties.

With its active participation in South Pacific conferences and its major contribution to the founding of the South Pacific Forum the Cook Islands began its first direct involvement in international affairs.
The leaders of both New Zealand and the Cook Islands agreed it was time to set out their shared understanding of the relationship between their countries and New Zealand prime minister Norman Kirk and Cook Islands premier Albert Henry undertook an Exchange of Letters which spelled out the relationship in detail.

Kirk's letter pointed out that the New Zealand government had a statutory responsibility for the external affairs and defence of the Cook Islands.

"It is, however, also intended that the Cook Islands be free to pursue their own policies and interests," he wrote.

Kirk said "the heart of the matter" was his point that, "the bond of citizenship does entail a degree of involvement [of New Zealand] in Cook Islands affairs. This is reflected in the scale of New Zealand's response to the Cook Islands' material needs; but it also creates an expectation that the Cook Islands will uphold, in their laws and policies, a standard of values generally acceptable to New Zealanders.

"The special relationship between the Cook Islands and New Zealand is on both sides a voluntary arrangement which depends on shared interests and shared sympathies. In particular it calls for understanding on New Zealand's part of the Cook Islands' natural desire to lead a life of their own and for equal understanding on the Cook Islands' part of New Zealand's determination to safeguard the values on which its citizenship is based."

This Exchange of Letters was an important milestone in the evolution of the relationship of free association between the Cook Islands and New Zealand. It repeated the fundamental principles that already governed the relationship as well as placing on record the basic, shared understandings underpinning the association.

In was on the basis of this that the relationship was to evolve and the Cook Islands began to play a greater, more direct role in the conduct of its own international relations.

The next decade saw a major expansion of the Cook Islands involvement in international affairs, including broader participation in international organisations and treaties in its own right. Government's first diplomatic and consular posts were established aboard and New Zealand upgraded its mission in Rarotonga.

The 1990s brought a continuing expansion of Cook Islands activities in international affairs including a broadening of its membership in regional and international organisations and participation in a wide range of bilateral and multilateral treaties - a trend which has continued to the present day.

The Cook Islands is a member of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Asian Development Bank, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

It is an Associate Member of both the Commonwealth and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Islands Forum ( and takes an active part in regional affairs through the forum and the Pacific Community.

In June 2000 the Cook Islands signed the Cotonou Agreement, paving the way to important financial and technical assistance from the European Union and its Asia, Caribbean and Pacific Group.

The country has established diplomatic relations with 19 countries. The Cook Islands has diplomats in New Zealand and the European Communities, and honorary consuls represent the Federal Republic of Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

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