OPINION - EDITORIAL by jason brown, editor, avaiki nius agency Tim Tepaki is our Cook Islander for the year 2005. For better – or worse – no other Cook Islander had as big an impact on the lives of as many Cook Islanders as the Wellington-based property developer. To his supporters, and there are many, Tepaki is a hero. Most tourism operators see Tepaki as the country’s best chance yet to inject some fresh energy into the industry. His enthusiastic promotion of the long-stalled Italian hotel and a new related project in Aitutaki to go with it excites many with the potential for high-end tourism. Many residents praise Tepaki as the man who promoted law change with the potential for putting higher value on their main asset: the land under their feet. CONFIDENCE Tepaki initiated introduction of the controversial Unit Titles Bill as a way of getting the Italian hotel restarted. It was aimed at allowing investors the confidence they can make sales room-by-room if the hotel cannot be sold as a one-off opportunity. An early draft of the law was changed to make sure that freehold sales above an expiring lease do not interfere with landowner rights underneath it. New laws under the Unit Titles Act are not just confined to the Italian hotel project, however. It also now applies to the whole of Rarotonga, with talk of outer islanders also wanting in on the action. Unlike earlier changes to land laws, such as those a quarter of a century ago allowing lawyers into the land courts, the Unit Titles Act may benefit “the little people” as well as “big” ones. VISIONARY And this, says Tepaki, is the point. He says the new law makes investment in the Cook Islands more attractive, creating opportunities for Maori Cook Islanders to enter into business as equal partners rather than head overseas and join the dole queues or work on factory floors. There is no doubt Tepaki is a visionary. He thinks big, talks big and, for many people, walks big. Passage of the Unit Titles Bill through an approving Parliament is proof of that, say supporters. Like anyone who sets out to achieve big things, of course, Tepaki has his critics. CRITICS He was attacked for bringing in what many felt was the biggest change to Maori land laws since the Cook Islands Act of 1915 guaranteed a lease-only system. Not being able to buy land freehold has been criticised by development ‘experts’ as holding back national progress. Many Maori Cook Islanders are fine with that. They do not want to see all their best land sold to foreigners forever as has already happened to Maori, Maohi and Maoli in Aotearoa, Tahiti and Hawaii. Especially when there is only 264 square kilometres of it, less than half of that on Rarotonga. PRESSURE On its own, the Unit Titles Act does not erode the country’s leasehold system. But it is a step away from that ideal, and may in future increase development and investment pressure on landowners to consider further law changes towards freehold sales. Which is why Tim Tepkai is our Cook Islander of the Year. Not so much for what he has or hasn’t done in property development – as for proving how easily one man can change our entire system. Tepaki is, after all, a minor player on the property development scene in New Zealand. DOUBTFUL Critics point to his own website, heavy with ‘artist’s impressions’ – paintings in other words – rather than actual photos of real-life finished projects. His much-boasted association with the Investor’s Forum looks good at first glance but includes a few doubtful characters, including property boosters of the get-rich-quick variety, as already reported on this website. In the homeland, Tepaki splashed out big on media coverage, sponsoring live broadcasts of a wide range of sporting events, especially rugby, and getting highly favourable ‘news’ items in return. Fawning headlines and biased TV items by the occasionally unreliable Pitt Media Group may have impressed the Investors Forum, but they did little to convince critics of Tepaki. HOW DID HE DO IT? Somehow however Tepaki was able to convince landowners, public servants, and an entire elected parliament including the opposition, who, incredibly, attacked critics, even after the bill was passed. How did he do it? Perhaps just by sounding confident. Photos in the Pitt’s weekly newspaper, the Cook Islands Herald, showed many of the island’s elite celebrating with Tepaki after passage of the Unit Titles Act 2005. Not many little people there. By comparison more than 1,000 people signed the petition against the original draft of the Unit Titles Bill, with over 100 more coming from Aitutaki, where the petition started. For these and other reasons, selection by avaiki nius agency of Tim Tepaki as Cook Islander of the Year 2005 could be controversial. LEADERSHIP For 2004, by comparison, the writer nominated Director of Audit Paul Allsworth and Solicitor General Janet Maki for Cook Islanders of the Year. Their steady block-by-block building of good governance to protect the interests of taxpayers big and small was and is inspiring. Uncovering corruption and successfully prosecuting cases in open court continued during 2005, confirming their contribution. It would have been easy to nominate them again. Pausing perhaps only to include behind-the-scenes leadership by deputy police commissioner Maara Tetava, a career officer, not a political appointee like his boss. Their team building is in the national interest and a good cause. WHY AN AWARD? Not so easy is the example set by Tim Tepaki. What after all, is the purpose of an annual award? Some see them as opportunities for some harmless promotion, a way of highlighting achievements. There is a place for those kind of awards. Not here though, not in the news world. Here, awards of this sort should never be a popularity poll, a kind of political beauty contest. To use an overseas example, Time won points for honesty as early as 1939 when it nominated Adolph Hitler as an example of fascist dictatorship impacting the world. By 2001, Time had become sufficiently cowed by quasi-fascists to nominate the globally unknown mayor of New York for his performance during terrorism attacks – rather than the politically incorrect Osama bin Laden who caused the attacks. Time magazine lost its nerve, and lost respect for failing to challenge its readers with an uncomfortable reality of the times. BEST AND WORST No such luck here at this news agency. At worst, Tepaki is an example that exposes a crisis in the legislative process – how easy it is to change laws of the land even in the face of deep concerns and formal public opposition. Those concerns centre not just on potential threats to the leasehold system, but how freehold unit titles may intensify development, leading to further problems under our poorly enforced environment laws. One cheeky environmentalist offered immediate congratulations to Tepaki when the new redrafted law was passed. In doing so, she challenged lawmakers to support old laws, not just new ones. It is this kind of fresh never-say-die thinking this country needs. OPPORTUNITY At best? It is interesting to note that it was mostly women leading public debate on the Unit Titles Bill, another positive to emerge from a male dominated society. At best, Tepaki’s enthusiasm for a fresh future in tourism development should, as suggested by environmentalists, also serve as an opportunity for urgent system change. As well as enforcing old laws, we need greater checks and balances for new ones. One of the easiest ways to protect the public interest would be to introduce good governance processes similar to New Zealand and other countries. A petition of 10 per cent of registered voters could trigger a referendum on any subject people feel strongly about. Unlike New Zealand, we could make the referendum binding. HOW IT COULD WORK An independent – and permanent – good governance commission could register voters and monitor their referenda. The commission could fairly and reliably inform the public about the issues at stake, in both languages, and make sure that public sentiment is actually reflected in legislation presented to parliament. Reintroduction of the National Development Council would also serve as a starting point for public concerns and as an early testing ground for visionaries like Tepaki. NDC members would come from all parts of our society, and oversee appointments to crucial leadership positions like the governance commission. Only by improving governance can we slow down mass migration, by giving people the confidence to keep their own land under their feet, rather than voting with them. CONGRATULATIONS All that belongs to the future. For now, Tim Tepaki deserves our congratulations for pushing through the biggest law change of 2005. Or, if his critics prove correct, of the last century. In doing so, and regardless of the many doubts surrounding his projects, he deserves recognition for achieving what he obviously believes in. It is an example even his critics can learn from. Actually, especially his critics.