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[Media Release- MFAI] Cook Islands look to refresh stepped up co-operation with Australia

Te Kauono Tutara e te Mana Tiaki – Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration

In the space of ten months, Cook Islands-Australia co-operation has grown significantly. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne visited the Cook Islands in July 2019, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna undertook a 3-city, 5 day official visit of Australia in November 2019 and the Australian Government opened its diplomatic mission in Rarotonga earlier this year.

For a small country like the Cook Islands, with the small Foreign Service team employed by Te Kauono Tutara e te Mana Tiaki – Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration (MFAI), 12 diplomats spread across offices in Rarotonga, Wellington and Suva, these are significant outcomes.

“It has been a challenging 12 months but we’ve delivered some fruitful outcomes for our people including as relate to co-operation with Australia and an elevated platform for engagement in the coming months,” said Foreign Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann. “Pivotal to progress and tangible outcomes has been Australia’s stepping up of engagement at all levels of Government and supporting and elevating connections between our governments and people in business, academia, the security fora, people to people links including the notable Cook Islands diaspora in Australia and the small but active Australia diaspora in the Cook Islands. Of great assistance has been collaboration with our Australian counterparts in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as well as Australia’s Office of the Pacific for which we are most grateful.”

Australia’s High Commissioner to the Cook Islands Dr. Christopher Watkins arrived Rarotonga in March to assume his diplomatic post on the eve of Cook Islands effecting border control measures to prevent the arrival of COVID-19 in the Cook Islands. High Commissioner (HC) Watkins is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in Australia and was most recently Assistant Director, Papua New Guinea Political Section in Canberra. Dr. Watkins’ prior overseas postings have included tenures in Australian Embassies in Iraq, Ghana and Nigeria. He is a Graduate of Oxford University in the UK and the University of Melbourne and is joined on this posting to Rarotonga by his wife, Dr. Penelope Watkins, a veterinarian doctor by trade.

“We acknowledge with appreciation the services of DFAT’s Chris Munn who preceded the arrival of HC Watkins to expedite mission set up arrangements and welcome the appointment by DFAT of a diplomat with Dr. Watkins credentials. His appointment affirms for MFAI the commitment by the Australian Government to expand and deepen co-operation in the coming months across the full spectrum of the Cook Islands development agenda,” said Secretary Herrmann.

Amongst the turmoil of COVID-19 challenges, the two Governments have kept in close contact and elevated collaboration. At political level through conversations between Prime Minister Puna and Foreign Minister Payne, as well as between Secretary Herrmann and her counterpart, DFAT’s Secretary Frances Adamson. In Rarotonga, discussions between HC Watkins and MFAI diplomats have been frequent, as both governments have focused targeted interventions on a multitude of COVID-19 related issues including border measures, ensuring provision of timely medical supplies and equipment into the Cook Islands and repatriation of nationals stranded by border measures. More recently, support from Australia has extended to the Cook Islands economic response measures including through the provision of technical assistance advisory support to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management.

“We welcome Australia’s confirmation of ongoing assistance and access to Australian funded regional programmes, including the invaluable Pacific Maritime Security Programme (PMSP). We particularly appreciate the support of recent months from Australia, which have focused on practical targeted interventions to strengthen our immediate emergency responses to COVID-19 but it is the mid-longer term national security and economic response and recovery co-operation of most interest to us,” said Secretary Herrmann. The collaboration of recent months have also been in the regional sphere, with regional Foreign Ministers including Prime Minister Puna and Foreign Minister Payne setting the regional policy framework for the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway for COVID-19.

Led by MFAI’s International and Trade Division, MFAI is presently reviewing pre-COVID19 aspirations for the Australia relationship and undertaking consultations with key agencies and sectors as part of a review of MFAI’s Statement of Strategic Intentions (SoSI). “The current review will inform a refreshed agenda for stepped up co-operation with Australia. The existing Australia-Cook Islands relationship has pockets of comprehensive co-operation, notably in the traditional security sphere via the PMSP and in the regional fora but there is scope for significant future expansion of bilateral co-operation that harnesses opportunities for innovative and emergent industries that mitigate against our traditional reliance on tourism. A refreshed approach will look to take a forward leaning posture that diverts from the donor-recipient dynamic of the past, towards one that actively seeks out and fosters new, innovative ways of doing business,” said Director International and Trade Division Karopaerangi Ngatoko.

The Manatua Cable, expected to “go live” in the next couple of weeks and deliver high speed broadband to Rarotonga and Aitutaki, as well as the PACER Plus Trade and Development Agreement which Parties hope to bring into force within the next couple of months are two vehicles MFAI are particularly looking to support Cook Islands economy diversification efforts and strengthen the enabling environment for refreshed stepped up economic co-operation with Australia. “COVID-19 has amplified the need for immediate and substantive efforts and investment by the Cook Islands in economy diversification. The Manuatua Cable and the PACER Plus Agreement avail timely mechanisms for expediting economy diversification efforts and through its SoSI review process, MFAI will be looking to focus through an innovation strategy identifying and leveraging international connections and mechanisms to support and strengthen the enabling environment for innovative and emergent industries in the Cook Islands,” said Secretary Herrmann.

MFAI expect to release its updated SoSI within the next couple of weeks. Discussions with the Australian Government are ongoing with a view to articulating a refreshed and stepped up co-operation agenda in the coming months.

Quereies regarding this release can be directed to Director Ngatoko at karopaerangi.ngatoko@cookislands.gov.ck


1. March 2020, MFAI headquarters Rarotonga: L-R: Chris Munn, former Charge d’affaires Australia High Commission to the Cook Islands; MFAI Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann; Australia High Commissioner to the Cook Islands Dr Christopher Watkins; MFAI Director International Affairs and Trade Karopaerangi Ngatoko;

2. November 2019, DFAT headquarters, Canberra: L-R: Chris Munn, DFAT; Mark Ney, Australia Federal Police; Michael Crowe; DFAT; MFAI Secretary Herrmann; Ewen McDonald, Head, Australia Office for the Pacific; Pamela Maru, Secretary CKI Ministry Marine Resources; MFAI Director Ngatoko; MFAI (MMR), Karo Ngatoko (MFAI), MFAI Acting-Director Pacific Antonina Browne (MFAI); Halatoa Fua; CKI Chief Executive Tourism; Maara Tetava, CKI Police Commissioner;

3. November 2019, Australia Parliament, Canberra: L-R: MFAI Secretary Herrmann; Senator Jonathan Duniam, Tasmania Senate; Patricia Forsythe Australia High Commissioner to NZ; Secretary Maru; Prime Minister Puna; Australia Foreign Minister Payne; Mrs Akaiti Puna; CKI Minister Infrastructure Robert Tapaitau; Mrs Sarakura Tapaitau; Australia Head of Pacific Office Mr McDonald; Mr Chris Munn;

4. November 2019, DFAT headquarters, Canberra: Cook Islands-Australia Roundtable with Cook Islands Delegation led by Secretary Herrmann and Australia Delegation led by Office of the Pacific Head McDonald; and

5. April 2019, MFAI headquarters Rarotonga: Secretary Herrmann and High Commissioner Watkins

Prior MFAI media releases on Australia-Cook Islands co-operation over last year: