The Queen’s Representative in Cook Islands yesterday dissolved parliament for a snap election, on the advice of Prime Minister Jim Marurai. Marurai’s Democratic Alliance Party government, already precariously placed, lost a by-election last week that put it clearly in a parliamentary minority. A vote of no confidence was expected this week.

If
Cook Islands was an Australian municipality, it would probably have
been amalgamated by now into something larger and more “viable” – it
only has about 18,000 residents (some sources say 21,000). As it is,
the former New Zealand protectorate is now an almost completely
independent country, although NZ retains some residual powers in
defence and foreign affairs. It is also a fast-growing tourist
destination for Australians.

The opposition Cook Islands Party
disputed the legitimacy of yesterday’s dissolution, and its MPs held
their own parliamentary sitting afterwards. The situation is still confused, but it appears that this was more a symbolic gesture than a revolutionary act.

What
happens when a government loses its majority in parliament was one of
the last unresolved questions in the Westminster system of government.
A century ago, when Australia had a three-party system, the
Governor-General more than once refused to allow fresh elections when a
government was defeated in the House of Representatives, because he
judged that the other parties could form a stable administration. These
days, however, it is accepted doctrine that an established government
that suffers defections or crucial by-election losses should be granted
a dissolution.

Unlike Australia, Cook Islands has tried to codify the Westminster conventions in its constitution,
but it is not a good piece of drafting. Article 37(3) provides as
follows: “The Queen’s Representative may at any time … dissolve
Parliament if he is advised by the Prime Minister to do so, but shall
not be obliged to act in this respect in accordance with the advice of
the Prime Minister unless the Queen’s Representative is satisfied,
acting in his discretion, that in tendering that advice the Prime
Minister commands the confidence of a majority of the members of
Parliament.”

Evidently the ruling interpretation of this is that
if the government lacks a majority, the Queen’s Representative still
“may” act on its advice to dissolve parliament, he is just not
“obliged” to. So he decided to see if an election will settle things;
the last one (two years ago) left the two parties evenly matched, but
this time Cook Islands might be more fortunate.

Peter Fray

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