New Colombo Plan students broadening their horizons in the Cook Islands!

Kia Orana! For a three week period, eleven law students from the University of Newcastle undertook internships within the Cook Islands public service. Through the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) they were able to gain pre-graduate experience in drafting legislation and reviewing parliamentary material. They also broadened their expertise in court procedures and issue-spotting skills in relation to different departments and management strategies. None of these achievements would have been possible without the support of their different Cook Islands supervisors and encouragement from the dedicated staff in each agency. Below is a snapshot of each student’s experience in the Cook Islands.

HOM with NCP students - Cook Islands

‘Gift giving is a selfless exchange in the Cook Islands and we have left gifted with a range of skills as a result of our ‘Externships’. We hope that we returned this gift by helping the country and we cannot wait to return to the Cook Islands in personal and professional capacities.’ 

– University of Newcastle students

Hudson Burns:

“Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI) ensure that the maintenance of roads, supply of clean water and disposal of waste is carried out on Rarotonga. My placement within ICI allowed me to apply knowledge and skills learnt throughout my legal studies in the classroom to real world tasks. Collaborating with my Cook Island colleagues I was able to assist in the drafting of legislation and review of contracts, an experience that was truly invaluable for both parties. The incredibly hospitable and generous nature of the Cook Island people also was repeatedly demonstrated by the sharing of ‘kai kai’ – meaning to share a feast!”

Matthew Freestone:

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration is central to all external affairs of the Cook Islands. Working with the Ministry enabled me to use my University skills to draft Legislation and Regulations to calibrate the Ministry so it corresponds with the current organisational structure while also including provisions to enable growth and sustainability. I was also able to discuss key issues relating to the ratification of treaties within the Cook Islands and the constitutional issues around enforcing them in a single unitary sovereign nation. I am grateful the NCP enabled me to utilise my skills and assist an Indo-Pacific nation.”

Alex Williams:

The New Colombo Plan offered me an opportunity as a university student that would have been unimaginable in Australia. I was able to work in the Cook Islands High Court as a member of their court staff and was able to play an active role in the administration of justice. This experience deepened my understanding of the common law and put theoretical concepts from my studies into practice. The opportunity to work in the Ministry of Justice allowed me to gain a greater understanding of Australia’s practical role in the Pacific, through funding initiatives such as the Criminal Trials Bench Book via the Pacific Judicial Development Program (PJDP). During my stay the hospitality of Cook Islanders was truly humbling. I built personal and professional relationships that will be invaluable to my future.”

Danielle Whyte:

The New Colombo Plan scholarship offered me the opportunity to work in the Cook Islands with the Ministry of Justice. My placement was at the Arorangi Prison, which is a small prison with a population of 45 inmates. The Cook Islands is a self-governing country and their legal system is based on common law. The Prison Act of the Cook Islands has not been amended since 1967. The lack of amendments has had a significant consequence: currently, there is no provision for any human rights such as protecting against torture or, conversely, allowing for a mother to breastfeed her child.

I had never done anything like that before, but for three weeks I worked day and night with the staff to draft legislation to amend their Prison Act. It will be one of the most significant documents I will ever work on in my career. As I was leaving the Cook Islands the superintendent told me that they had been trying to have their legislation amended since 1996 and that their last quote for drafting had come in from a lawyer in New Zealand at a cost of $135,000. I am really proud that I was able to contribute to the Cook Islands and leave them with something that will benefit their prison community into the future.”

Bianka Lee: “During my Externship, I was placed at the Cook Islands Police Service and tasked with drafting regulations, agreements between islands and case file management. The highlight of the experience was being respected with the kind of work I would not usually be able to complete at this point in my professional career.

Whilst we made suggestions based on effective Australian laws and policies, the Cook Islands also has much to offer us and Australia should be informed of the different practices and processes applied in our South Pacific neighbour’s jurisdiction. I am confident to begin my career as a solicitor because of this opportunity; it would be good practice to continue to expose other future lawyers to more cross-jurisdictional Externships.”

Nikki Littler:

“I spent my international legal internship in the Cook Islands at the Office of the Public Service Commissioner. This department works to promote and implement policies and practices that support good governance across the public sector. This was a highly valuable and transformational experience for me as I implemented my legal skills in a foreign jurisdiction. I was asked to commence legal research of the Constitution and other statutes in order to provide recommendations to the department for rationalising the public service. This experience gave me greater insight into the country’s governance arrangements and also served to develop my knowledge of Australia’s impact across the South Pacific”

Shannon O’Hara-Smith:

“While working in the Ministry of Health I had the privilege of meeting many leading healthcare professionals in the Asia-Pacific region who had gathered on Rarotonga for the Cook Islands’ annual international health conference. I learnt of some the most crucial health concerns affecting the Cook Islands today and was able to tackle some real issues head-on in drafting policy and legislation in areas such as mental health and human rights.

My eyes were opened to the significance of relationships between various stakeholders in disparate countries across the pacific as I also met representatives from the United Nations Development Fund based in Tonga. Through open discussion and collaboration with such dedicated professionals, I have a much stronger appreciation for the importance of connection and the sharing of information between healthcare providers across the region as well as the significance of participation in these networks to Australia. I am extremely grateful to the Cook Islands for this education.”

Tamara Parker:

“I was placed in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management for my legal internship. I worked in the Development Coordination Division (DCD) which is responsible for coordinating agreements with development partners and providing development advice to partners including Ministers, government agencies, committees, community groups, private groups and donors. While at DCD I worked on developing a policy manual for the division, which let me gain an insight into the Cook Islands public service structure. This experience overall has given me the chance to gain more confidence in implementing my legal skills. I am very thankful for the New Colombo Plan and for all the people in DCD that were part of my internship.”

In closing, we note that the Externship would not have been possible without the planning between our Deputy Dean, Kevin Sobel-Read, and his partnership with the Cook Islands’ Secretary of Justice, Tingika Elikana, who enabled us to be placed within the various Ministries and Departments.

We would therefore like to thank the New Colombo Plan, once again, for broadening our horizons and creating our ties with the Cook Islands. The Externship showed to us the importance of building and maintaining relationships across the South Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions, in both a legal but also neighbourly sense. We are honoured and ready to maintain these strong connections and to continue to act as representatives of our university and country in Australia’s ongoing and growing relationship with the Cook Islands and other Pacific nations.

Meitaki maata!


Hudson Burns, Matthew Freestone, Bianka Lee, Nikki Littler, Brianna Macks, Callum Maher, Shannon O’hara-Smith, Nicholas Orchard-Stephan, Tamara Parker, Danielle Whyte and Alex Williams.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s