Cook Islands, Government
Under a constitution adopted in 1965, the Cook Islands became a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand. Under this arrangement, the islands manage their own internal affairs and most of their external affairs, while New Zealand is responsible for defense. Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand. Although there is no official Cook Islands citizenship, the inhabitants of the Cook Islands consider themselves to be citizens of both the Cook Islands and New Zealand.
The Cook Islands is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of sovereign nations and dependencies that give symbolic or actual allegiance to the British Crown. The British monarch, as head of state, appoints a representative (nominally the queen’s representative) to the Cook Islands government. The New Zealand government also appoints a diplomatic representative. A cabinet headed by a prime minister carries out the day-to-day functions of government. The prime minister is selected by the queen’s representative from the majority party in the legislature. The 25-member legislature is elected every five years. The House of Ariki, a body of as many as 15 hereditary chiefs, advises the legislature on matters relating to tradition and custom.
The High Court has jurisdiction over all civil, criminal, and land matters. The chief justice is appointed by the queen’s representative on the advice of the prime minister. Other judges vary in number and are similarly appointed.
The Cook Islands have a lively political scene. Political parties include the Cook Islands Party, the Democratic Party, and the Alliance Party. These parties are often overshadowed by powerful personalities.
For a small state, the Cook Islands is active in regional affairs. Its prime ministers have provided strong leadership throughout the Pacific Islands. The Cook Islands was a founding member of the South Pacific Forum, a regional organization that addresses the foreign affairs and international trade of its members. It is also a member of the South Pacific Commission, a group that promotes regional cooperation on economic and social issues.