Cook Islands cabinet minister sacked, CIP hold on government seen as ‘fragile’

MP Albert Nicholas pictured at his swearing-in back in May 2015.

RAROTONGA, (RNZ PACIFIC/COOK ISLANDS NEWS) – The Cook Islands police minister, Albert Nicholas, has been removed from cabinet by the coalition government.

The Cook Islands Party member was only recently appointed to cabinet as both the police and internal affairs minister.

Nicholas, who is the MP for Ruatonga Avatiu, was reportedly overseas for health reasons.

No reason has been given for his sacking.

Albert Nicholas has been replaced in cabinet by MP Vaine Makiroa Mokoroa.

Meanwhile, Cook Islands’ political situation is fragile and the government could change at any time, says an experienced political commentator.

Speaking to CINews on condition of anonymity, the source says the government could change within months or even weeks.

The possibilities are said to range from the CIP replacing prime minister Henry Puna with Finance minister Mark Brown, to the formation of a new coalition government which would be achieved by several MPs crossing the floor.

At the centre of the uncertainty surrounding the government’s future is the fate of dumped Internal Affairs minister Albert Nicholas, who has been suffering serious health issues, the source says.

At the swearing in of Mac Mokoroa as the new Internal Affairs minister last Wednesday, Puna told Queen’s Representative Tom Marsters that it had become necessary for him to terminate the appointment of “a minister” for personal reasons.

Clearly referring to Avatiu-Ruatonga-Palmerston (RAPPA) MP Nicholas, Puna said: “He has been unable to discharge his responsibilities of the high office of minister and it has become necessary for us to terminate the appointment and appoint a new minister in his place.”

“I have approached this issue strictly from a prime minister-to-minister relationship and the responsibilities, plus the standards, expected of a minister of the Crown.

“That’s all my interest in this matter is.

“There is a lot of speculation but, again, you know I need to be very careful – everybody needs to be very careful – because we haven’t had the opportunity of testing the speculation.

“And we can never be in a position to do that unless we speak directly with the Honourable Member (Nicholas),” said Puna.

Before this year’s general election in June, Nicholas spent some weeks in an Auckland, New Zealand hospital suffering from what was said to be a serious blood infection that had started with a centipede bite. He had been a patient at Rarotonga Hospital for some time before that.

Nicholas, who has been absent in New Zealand since the release of the judgements on the electoral petitions, is still an MP in the CIP government. Under current regulations an MP may be replaced if he misses 14 consecutive days of a parliamentary sitting.

Last Thursday, prime minister Henry Puna said he was expecting Nicholas back on the island at the weekend.

If the government decided Nicholas couldn’t continue as an MP, there would be a by-election, which Demo candidate Teina Rongo could have a good chance of winning, the source says.

Combined with MPs crossing the floor, this could also trigger a change of government.

Yet another possible scenario is that as a result of losing his Cabinet post, Nicholas might “walk”, However the CIP numbers might then be made up by another “vaka-jumper” from the Demo Party, the source adds.

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