Politics under the palms. For the tiny Cook Islands, scandals in miniature

An improbable micro-state of volcanic rock and coral reef, the Cook Islands are sprinkled across an ocean expanse the size of the Mediterranean. Fifteen specks of land which, if gathered side by side, would fit within the limits of Oklahoma City seven times. Its inhabitants number less than one-third the population of Oshkosh, Wis.

The Cook Islands are not one of those gentlemanly offshore tax shelters; they do not run winter package tours for sunbathers from Peoria, nor do they have a revolutionary cigar-smoking premier -- any one of which would keep a minuscule island in the public eye. So little, in fact, is heard about these islands in this country that many Americans are hard-pressed to place them on a map or even tell you in which ocean to start looking. Yet since gaining independence from New Zealand 16 years ago, the Cook Islands have emerged as the subject of one of the most intriguing ''birth of a nation'' stories in the South Pacific.

So diminutive and far-flung are these tropical islands that for centuries they remained out of sight and untouched by the traffic of New World explorers. It took old eagle-eyed Captain James Cook, for whom the islands are named, to discover them northeast of New Zealand in the 1770s. A decade later the first Europeans actually set foot on Rarotonga, the largest of the islands. They were Fletcher Christian's Bounty mutineers, fleeing the notorious Bligh and the British Navy.

By the 19th century waves of British missionaries began to arrive. In 1901 colonists came from New Zealand, which, ironically, had first been settled by Maoris sailing from Rarotonga centuries earlier. Today it is difficult to turn anywhere on Rarotonga without running into fusty trappings of the British Empire: left-hand driving, cricket fields, fish and chips, Romanesque stone churches, sausage rolls, manicured thorn hedges, lawn tennis, debating clubs, Bermuda shorts, and regulation knee socks.

Among the colonial legacies are stringent land laws that make property nearly impossible to accumulate. Anyone in the islands who dreamed of getting rich probably left long ago for the bright lights of Auckland. And yet those who remain do not go hungry. In this fertile volcanic soil flourishes a regime of biological socialism: Anything and everything grows. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are free for the picking. Pigs are fattened on avocados. Coconuts so abound they are used as chicken feed. It has reached the point where, as one local farmer put it: ''When we look up at a coconut tree all we see are chickens and eggs.''

These Polynesians have a warm vision of planet earth. Farming and Christianity go hand in glove. The church and the banana packing shed are the principal meeting places in most villages. A minister in the Cook Islands Christian Church on Rarotonga recently told his Maori congregation: ''God didn't put man in the wilderness, He put him in a garden.'' The altar of the church was heaped with palm leaves and hibiscus flowers, and gave the minister an appearance of preaching not so much from a pulpit as out of a rain forest.

Until New Zealand planted its flag in the Cooks at the turn of the century, the islands were ruled by a highly moralistic Prostestant theocracy imported by the London Missionary Society. Prior to the missionaries, the Cooks had a longstanding tradition of warfare and cannibalism; if you didn't get along with the chief, he would invite you for dinner -- you werem dinner. With an Old Testament vengeance, the missionaries punished Maoris whose lives were less ''perfect'' than their own. Much of that piety and order survived.

''You can walk anywhere you like in Rarotonga at night,'' said one Cook Islander. ''All you hear in the dark is a passing voice saying 'Good night.' And you reply, 'Good night, my friend.' ''

There is little to fear. Guns and narcotics are strictly forbidden and crime usually means bike-snatching or too much to drink on Saturday night. An official in the prime minister's office said there had not been a homicide committed with a firearm since 1911. And from watching what goes on at the Rarotonga police headquarters, most officers occupy themselves by filling out $1 temporary drivers' licenses for tourists on scooters.

Law and orderliness apply to architecture and tourists as well. Building codes stipulate that no structure can be taller than a palm tree, and the Cooks remain one of the few countries outside the communist world which require confirmed hotel reservations before you can buy a plane ticket to the islands.

Appropriately, this postage stamp-size country has built a reputation for its high-class philatelics. More recently, it has become known for its bizarre brand of ''outback'' parliamentary politics, a concoction of banana republic skulduggery laced with Robert's Rules of Order.

The islands last broke into the news during their 1978 election when the late Albert Royle Henry, a former cabdriver who became the Cooks' first prime minister, was caught spending the government's annual postage-stamp revenue to airlift supporters from New Zealand to vote for him. (The sale of commemorative postage stamps around the world is one of the Cooks' largest sources of revenue and nets nearly $1 million a year.) The courts blew the whistle on Henry, took away his seat in Parliament, and installed as prime minister his opponent, the Honorable Sir Thomas Robert Alexander Harries Davis KBE, more commonly known as ''Dr. Tom.''

For the last three years Davis and the Democratic Party he founded to challenge the shenanigans of the Henry government, have ruled the islands. The new prime minister brandishes an alluring curriculum vitae. The grandson of a Maori princess and a Welsh sea captain, Davis became a world authority on the effects of high altitudes and subzero temperatures on humans. He played a part in the early days of the space program.

But why did Davis leave behind a lucrative executive post at Arthur D. Little , the prestigous Boston consulting firm, to politick in this sleepy little republic? To find out I stopped by the prime minister's office on the opening day of the fall parliamentary session.

Prime Minister Davis's secretary, Maureen, a pleasant woman with a soft New Zealand lilt, had warned me earlier that his calendar might be ''rather full up. The problem with being PM (prime minister) on the island is that everyone wants to talk to the man at the top. They don't take his ministers seriously. The White House doesn't have that problem now, does it?'' she asked. ''Then again, the President of the United States doesn't take off every Wednesday afternoon to go fishing in his catamaran.''from behind that will swamp us both.''

Many believe that the ''fast catamaran'' in the next election in the Democratic Party will be Iaveta Short, Davis's Minister of Tourism, a handsome, savvy lawyer from Takitumu. Even if Davis survives this challenge from within his party, he will undoubtedly face, in the final race for prime minister, stiff opposition from a relative of the late Albert Henry.

To catch a glimpse of Davis's competition I joined the 22 members of Parliament for their traditional afternoon ''tea break,'' a euphemism for a midday buffet prepared in the Parliament building's tiny kitchen. After a plate of chicken curry over rice and sliced pineapples, I sat down behind a radio technician at the back of the Parliament hall to listen in on the debate.

Albert Henry's son, Tupui Arama Henry, standing with his hands in the pockets of his navy leisure suit, was haranguing the Davis government for financing a controversial pineapple drying plant on the island of Mangaia. The proceedings were being broadcast live, and as he held forth in Maori, a young man across the aisle simultaneously translated his speech into English. To the right of the translator sat the Speaker of the House beneath a black-and-white photograph of Queen Elizabeth. Government members sat on the left, the opposition benches were on the right.

When I arrived at the Parliament Building, Davis's chauffeur, dressed smartly in navy shorts, matching jacket, and knee socks, was waiting in the driveway. A soft morning rain drummed on the hood of the prime minister's silver Audi sedan parked in front of a narrow, stark white, one-story structure surrounded by flowerbeds. It was highly reminiscent of those $8-a-night roadside motels that fringe US Route 66. According to Maureen, the building now used as the Parliament house was erected in 1974 as temporary housing for construction crews working on the international airport across the street. Davis's tiny, lime-green office gave the appearance of construction still in progress. The red, all-weather carpet looked recently laid, or perhaps was just too wide for the room. It ran nearly one vertical foot up the wall behind Davis's desk.

That day Davis had delivered a land-tenure speech on the floor of Parliament and was back in his office shuffling papers. His garb seemed more fitting to a Burbank producer than a prime minister: baby blue cotton trousers, an embroidered shirt, a gold neck chain, and a matching gold pen and pencil set in his shirt pocket. Davis is a portly man. His bushy eyebrows and ample jowls give the appearance of a permanent bulldog scowl. He is amiable enough, however, and has the self-confidence of a dozen politicians.

He has written two books and published over 80 scholarly articles including ''The Ballistic Space Flight of Monkeys'' and ''The Cooling Effect of Wind on the Little Finger.'' Last year Queen Elizabeth made him a Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE), a title whose sheer weight most certainly confirms one's sense of destiny.

''I knew from the time I was 9 or 10,'' recalled Sir Thomas, ''that some day I would be leading this country. There was no question in my mind. Polynesia has a way of choosing its leadership at birth.''

Davis fondly recalls his Cook Islands childhood of canoeing, cock fighting, and skipping school to fish off the reefs. Like most island boys from prominent families, young Tom was sent to school in Auckland. He remained in New Zealand to become a surgeon, and later an expert in tropical and Arctic medicine. After a fellowship to the Harvard School of Public Health, he lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, and later Greenland where he studied the effects of extreme temperature on humans and animals.

His fascination with frigid climate was an indirect reaction to his tropical childhood.

''In February at school in New Zealand I felt the cold so much that I found myself shivering all night. I refused to put on any warm clothing because I was determined to get used to it. I slowly adapted and after three weeks the shivering stopped. In 1941 at medical school I did more research on friends who surfed through the winter. At the same time I designed my first space capsule and realized we had everything we needed to put a man into space except the rocket. Back then they thought I was nuts and called me 'Crazy Tom.' ''

After Sputnik, talk of space flight was no longer lunacy. From 1957 to 1971, Davis worked on and off with a medical monitoring team for the US space program, first for the Army, later for NASA.

''The first animals went up in 1957 with [Project] Jupiter. The Navy put up a squirrel and I put up the rhesus monkey [for the Army]. I remember later when Alan Shepard (the first American in space) came back down we gave him a banana as a joke.

''By 1952 we had actually designed the space shuttle, but kept having to fight off Eisenhower who tried to discourage us. We kept things secret, not from the Russians but from the politicians who were always snooping around.''As much as Davis felt confounded by elected officials, he too harbored political ambitions. In 1971 he saw his chance and he returned to the Cook Islands to found the Democratic Party and oppose Henry's regime in the next election. Henry's Cook Island Party (CIP) had become another Tammany Hall, Davis said, and Albert Henry was the South Seas' Boss Tweed.

Henry, born on the island of Aitutaki, spoke perfect Maori and English. He possessed a quick wit and an overpowering charisma. Furthermore, ''he knew his people like he knew his own sitting room,'' as one high government official put it. ''On the bad side,'' according to that official, ''Henry was a womanizer, a drinker, and conniving liar. In 1964 when he came back from his sugar refinery job and taxicab work in New Zealand, Henry made up his mind to become premier. He and his family were crooks and they governed by gang rule, gross misappropriation, nepotism, the lot. He paid his followers with bribes and good jobs. He intimidated the rest of us. He was a potential Papa Doc, completely unscrupulous. Yet he got things done and I still remember him as the most remarkable Cook Islander I ever met.''

Gradually, people lost faith in the Henry regime. The economy was slumping and Davis's Democratic Party was coming up from behind. It was then that Henry was found trying in effect, to stuff the ballot box by flying in supporters from New Zealand. Following a lively trial, Chief Justice Gaven Donne removed Henry from Parliament and gave the election to Davis.

Davis sees himself as the dragon slayer, yet admits to striking similarities between him and his arch-rival, Henry, who - coincidentally - was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth. ''Albert Henry and I were brought up the same way,'' said Davis. ''As children we were trained to be authoritarian, not to take any nonsense. The trouble with Henry was he wanted to be a litle dictator.''

The present government must call an election within the next two years, and Davis, no doubt, will face a challenge to his party leadership from younger Democratic Party MPs. Warned Henry in the last election: ''My canoe is getting old and so is Tom's. I can see a fast catamaran coming up

Following Tupui Arama Henry in the debate was Geoffrey Henry, Albert Henry's first cousin.

In 1971 Albert called Geoffrey to serve in his cabinet as minister of education. Subsequently he rose to become attorney general, postmaster general, and minister of finance. When Albert lost his seat in the aftermath of the 1978 election scandal, Geoffrey was elected leader of the opposition. ''They called the old man [Albert Henry] a nepotist for filling government posts with his family,'' Geoffrey Henry fumed in the privacy of his office. ''But the family has been in government service for years. Now we're just carrying on the old man's tradition. Did you know the Henry family are descendants of Henry VIII?''

A handsome man with curly black hair, Geoffrey cuts a striking figure in his crimson cable-knit sweater jacket and wool necktie. He has the family gift for gab. His oratory lands somewhere between Jerry Falwell and William Jennings Bryan.

''Davis and his government believe in uncontrolled competition, the jungle law of economics,'' Henry said. ''The rich get richer and the weak must protect themselves. He's already dropped the company tax from 35 to 20 percent, in some cases (to as little as) 5 percent. The old man was a firm leader but he never put himself above the people. Ask the poor, aged, and destitute what they thought of the old man. They will speak with tears in their eyes. You ask the big guys and they speak with venom.''

From Davis's description of Albert Henry as a ''card-carrying communist,'' one hardly expected to hear his cousin Geoffrey expressing unrestrained reverence toward the British missionaries. It turns out that Geoffrey Henry grew up as the son of a deacon in Aitutaki's Cook Islands Christian Church, founded by the London Missionary Society in the early 19th century. It is rare to hear a politician in a third-world country speak so glowingly of the colonists.

''The Cooks have a way of life many other people can learn from,'' Geoffrey said. ''In some sense that way of life was brought by the Europeans in the 1820 s. They brought the Gospel and threw out heathenism and paganism with the message 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' People here have compassion. They care. That was instilled first through the missionaries.'' The shrill whine of motorbikes outside the window punctuates his sentence.

''Tribes used to steal land from each other,'' he continued. ''The missionaries brought the concept of home. Generosity is one of the important apsects of the Cook Islands. We were an extremely violent people. Now we are not , except for the occasional rugby game which brings out the beast in us. The vision I have for this country is for our way of life to continue with a strong influence from the church.''

As Henry spoke I couldn't help wondering what those high-minded missionaries would have thought of the pin-up calendar on his office wall, or the fact that one of Albert Henry's first acts in office was to permit the sale of liquor in what was traditionally a ''dry'' country.

''The influence of religion in politics has been deep-rooted,'' Geoffrey said. ''It would be difficult for anyone to win an election if he weren't attending church somewhere. We had a religious advisory council which helped the government form policy.''

Suddenly the lights in the Parliament building flickered and went out. Henry relished the chance to make political hay and asked, ''See what I mean? This government can't even keep the electricity on.''

The lifeblood of the Cook Island economy is imported fuel oil, making this nation especially vulnerable to world price increases. The cost of petroleum-generated electricity in the Cooks has been rising in quantum leaps. The owner of Rarotonga's largest laundry said he now pays $2.66 for the gallon of fuel that cost 84 cents in 1977.

The government-owned Hotel Rarotonga (the largest on the island), has been struggling with an occupancy rate between 10 and 15 percent and still chalks up a monthly electricty bill of $35,000.

''Our biggest problem is transportation,'' said Pomani Tangata, a former member of Parliament from Atiu. Until recently, freighters calling there had to anchor offshore and off-load cargo into rowboats. ''Agriculture is supposed to be the economy's backbone,'' he said. ''But for whatever we produce we must rely on transport to move it. Agriculture, tourism, and imports depend on it. When that falls through we're sunk.''

Davis echoes the transportation theme. ''If you gave any of these islands proper transportation, they would florish economically. In two years we could double our exports in bananas, copra, and clothing.''

On energy, he believes the Cooks have no choice but eventual independence. ''My opinion is we should go to solar electricity. Right now all our communications in the outer islands are run on photovoltaics. Wind is simple, too, and it's been around for a long time.''

Davis does not oppose nuclear power, but nuclear wastes and weapons testing is a whole other shooting match. ''From Bimini to Christmas Island, the Pacific has been overtested. The French nuclear tests were the cleanest, the Americans' the dirtiest. Japan has been dumping nuclear waste here for years, and Americans have been planning to dump between here and Hawaii.''

Some Cook Islanders fear the economy is more fluff than substance. ''The problem now on Rarotonga is that the economy is completely artificial,'' said a longtime political observer on Rarotonga. ''About 67 percent of the working age population are employed by the government in schools, hospitals, road construction crews.'' ''

How will Geoffrey Henry, the former finance minister, campaign against the Davis government on economic issues? ''Our future certainly does not lie in agriculture. We don't have enough land. Our largest natural resources today are sea and sunshine. We have 92.2 square miles of rock and soil and 1.2 million square miles of water. The world will reach a point where fish will be in demand. That's why we need to develop aquaculture.

''Our sunshine - the past week excepted'' said Henry, referring to the rains which had unexpectedly drenched the island during its annual tourism promotion week, ''is conducive to tourism. . . . We have 22,000 tourists come through here each year which is more than our total population. I believe we can handle 36, 000.''

Some islanders hesitate to charge headlong into the mainstream: ''We don't want to repeat Hawaii and Tahiti; they rushed ahead,'' Tangata told me. ''There's a saying in the islands: 'Let tomorrow look after itself. We can't hasten tomorrow's sunset.' ''

Then there are politicians, like Geoffrey Henry, who have their eyes on tomorrow. ''The Cook Islands will never go back to the 13th century,'' he said. ''We're smack dab in the middle of the space age. As someone once said 'If you reach the middle of a river it is as good to go forward as to return.' We have already passed the middle of that river.''

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