Sir Tom Davis
Born in Rarotonga, Dr (later Sir) Tom Davis spent many school and university years in New Zealand, and he earned international distinction as a research physiologist before returning to the Cook Islands, entering Parliament and then becoming Prime Minister from 1978 to 1987, with a brief break in 1983. He was interviewed by Ian Johnstone in 1994.
Davis: I'd applied to the New Zealand Government for a job here and they kept turning me down, but on the fourth or fifth time, they couldn’t find anybody else, I guess…
Ian: Why wouldn’t they want you back? They must have been relatively short of doctors.
The government didn’t think it was a good idea to have an educated Cook Islander come back in an important role… I’m sorry but that was the opinion of the time.
Was this your first conflict with the colonial attitude and administration?
Earlier, they told my family I should go to the Fiji School of Medicine, to, you know, keep me on the right track. The family thought it was the best thing to do what they'd been advised. I just rebelled and said I would do a full medical course, or nothing at all. That created problems of finance so I had to work my way through, which wasn’t easy, lot of sleep lost and so on.
Then I applied to come back here and as I said, four times they didn't want me, but the fifth time they conceded that they needed somebody. Then I was promoted to Chief Medical Officer, in 1948, I think. Meanwhile I'd gone to Australia for tropical medicine and in 1952 I was invited to go to Harvard. I might say they weren't happy about that.
What were your relationships like with the colonial administrators, most I guess, NZers. Did they look on you favourably – or were you a rebel?
They looked on me personally favourably. I was colour blind, what should happen to an island boy, so to speak, but there was a problem. They didn't want me, for instance, to take over the Chief Medical Officers' quarters. They wanted me to be housed somewhere else.
This was racism, was it? A colour bar?
Sheer racism. I had to suffer a fair bit of that. I was asked by the Resident Commissioner to enjoy myself and not worry so much about the sick people… I was spending too much money and all that. I just looked aghast. It was pretty bad. It created a state of mind which in effect said “We need to be free of this”.
Then Albert Henry came back in 1947 and I felt so strongly that we should have more say that I did work awfully hard at that, as had my mother before me. I particularly felt that our people had a lot more intelligence than they were being credited for and they were being kept down – and if they had a chance they would have done that to me, but I had a degree and a firm belief in myself and nobody was going to trample on that.
It had its problems and when I went to Harvard, the Resident Commissioner here – maybe this didn't come from NZ – but he said "If you accept that, you'll never get a job back here in the Cook Islands".
Really! He wasn't proud of the achievement, the honour…
No, no, no. I had made a terrible faux pas by accepting the invitation to Harvard. Then Albert came in and he came with the intent to disturb, which was the current thing of people on the left at that time. I saw it as being wasteful, but supported his idea that something should be done. But he came here to the waterfront, which was his background and had great disturbances there, and I talked him out of it, talked to him about heading for independence, or more say in local matters.
But I must say NZ supported my medical programme fully. When I took over the total budget was only about 12–15 thousand pounds and within 3 years I was up to 45 thousand and we had a good medical service.
Then came 1965, when I was in the US, but I heard all about it.
There you were, in Harvard, tied up will the space programme and all kinds of international things, were you still watching what was happening at home?
Absolutely. It wasn't always easy but I was kept informed.
Were you sending back advice? Looking at tactics?
No, I didn't know enough of what was going on, to be involved that way. That would have been out of order.
When you heard what had happened here in '65, the choice of self-government in free association with NZ rather than independence, what was your view?
I thought that was not a bad step. I thought we were going to make great mistakes, but better our mistakes than NZ's mistakes. We could live with ours, but why do we have to live with anybody else's? So I thought things were happening in the right direction.
There you were with this extremely high-profile important job – requests to you to come back home. You must have thought “I’ve got to go back there one day” or did you?
Despite my great fondness for America and its kindness to me – I was one of the top one or two hundred when I was working for government – I could never find any place that had my attention more than my own home. I’d lived through it as a doctor. I saw the disease caused by poverty, people not getting the right things, or enough, to eat, whatever, kids with sores on their legs. Even when I came back in 1970, the sores on the kids legs indicated to me as a doctor that nutrition was bad, and kids were apathetic. That all had to be changed. I couldn't change them until 1978.
About your being invited to come back – we're talking late 60s – was that an invitation?
Yes. From my cousin Makea, mainly, and from my old friends I'd worked with.
But not, I guess, from Albert Henry who would be glad you were away. You'd always been political foes?
Yes, he saw me as a rival and was happy when I was away. It wasn't only the NZ government that was happy I was away!
When you got back, patently you had a political role to play, but what sort of a job did you think Albert Henry and his CI Party had made of the experience of self-government?
I thought it was rather sad. The economy was going backwards steadily. From '65 it had gone back 10% a year, despite the rise in tourism from 1974... very steep rise. It was just beginning, so had to be steep. They were ordinary Cook Islanders from using their land, using their skills, using their own resources to get into tourism. Before I became Prime Minister I fought for that.
You were fighting an entrenched and very popular governing party. Can you remember the first time you met Albert after you got back?
Oh yes. Of course we’d always been good friends despite the undercurrent of rivalry. He spent a great deal of time with all the friends who were supporting him to talk me into supporting him.
He'd have liked you as a deputy, would he?
He’d have liked me out of the Opposition. He spent a great deal of time and effort on that. One thing I will say about him, I could talk about anything with him. He kept confidences well and I did the same in reverse. I could tell you some, but I won't even tell you those.
You've returned, you look at what's got to happen, you've got to set up the Demos, then you've got to get yourself a seat in Parliament. Was that easy? First time in politics?
Yes. Not easy, but I did win the seat and stayed long enough to be useful and be a problem to others. Useful to the majority, I hope. I’m proud that we took one of the lowest Pacific economies to the top, above Fiji and any of the other independent states. Nobody can take that from me. They might try!
How pleased were you with the constitution and the self-government arrangements put in place in 1965? Did it work as well as you wanted? What's wrong with it now?
It had a few flaws but I think of these things as frills rather than great things that you put your life on. You can operate if your programme is right, if your mental thinking is right. The flaws in the constitution didn't worry me one bit. It wasn't bad but it wasn't good.
We made big changes in 1980/81 which took us forward. The big thing we had to do was overcome NZ’s wish to be paternalistic. David Lange wanted us to go back, to give up all the economic gains the country had made, the equal dealings with France, England, America, Japan. He wanted to take all this away....
Take over your foreign affairs?
Yes, take back. Of course the constitution still says they have charge of foreign affairs but it's nothing like that. We have charge of our own economy, own foreign affairs, everything. And that's the way it's going to stay.
So you remain now, at age 77, just as determined that Cook Islanders will run the affairs of this country. So what do you think of NZ now?
Of course I’ve always loved NZ – it's just that when any country has a colony it treats it the way NZ treated us. If you go back in Polynesian history; the Tongans climbed all over the Samoans and the Fijians and Tahitians have done the same thing to their outer islands. The Romans did it and NZ didn’t act any differently from the Romans.
It’s in the nature of power.
In the nature of colonial power.
What's the long term? Are we going to see Cook Islanders making more of a living here? At the moment you've got two-thirds of your country living overseas, in NZ. Should that be reversed? Can it be?
No. I don't think it can be. Too many of them there now. They come back – it's a problem of space. We'd rather they stayed if they've been there all that long. We reversed the flow from here to NZ because we'd improved the economy so much that people stayed.
Then the reverse flow occurred round about 84, 85, 86, and that has been continuing. Our people feel it could be a problem. If we were into heavy industry, into big factories and things like that we might need them despite other problems. But as things stand now we're fairly comfortable and people feel the strain when people come back and demand their equal rights, with our people having fought so hard to get where they are.
So you feel the balance is about right now?
It's about right. It will increase. For the past ten years (1985-1995) the population has remained absolutely still, the birth rate is steady so there is no problem with the population. It is always the case that when the economy improves, the birth rate goes down. I proposed this way back in '54 at a Harvard seminar and everybody thought I was nuts, but that's how it works.
Looking back, one of the things that occurs in a colonial period is that the people under colonial rule lose their own sense of self-worth. They don't grow in pride and confidence. Was that the case here, and if so, has it been corrected now?
Yes, that was the case, and it’s not all corrected, there are still people who think the NZ ways may be better, but essentially, 90% of people really believe in themselves; who have self-esteem, who are doing things on their own. I wasn’t too happy about the Sheraton – they were going to bring in Filippinos and we'd be second class citizens in tourism. I'd worked so hard – "Go and build yourself a unit and run it" – that's how we turned the economy around, our own people getting in there and owning tourist associated industries. I hope we keep that. This government has tended to go towards a few elites instead of saying “C’mon fellows, lets build an industry; let's us get into it. If you feel you’ve got the resources to do it, with your own hands, with your own family, your own money – go ahead and do it. If you've got a banana plot that's not doing very well, go and get into the business”.
What about the sense of history, the cultural inheritance, the sense of being a Cook Islander. Is that as strong as you want it to be?
It’s as strong as it need be. It may not be as strong as I want it to be. I think Premier Geoffrey Henry has done pretty well – and I hope I did, too. My area is voyaging and I just put everything I can into knowledge of our maritime history, types of canoes, Polynesian navigation and what happened and I hope I know enough about that. But culture is not a government department; it’s what you adapt for yourself of what you are and what you have been. It’s a progression of things that you do culturally that suits you. For it to become a government department doesn't do any good. Specially a very expensive one.
Looking back, sir, you were away for twenty years, and part of that time was a formative period – this country moving into self-government and so on. Do you regret that you weren’t here then?
No, because knowing we were self-governing and knowing at some time I would be called, I spent a great deal of time trying to understand economic methods. I’m a great believer in free enterprise; I do not believe in restrictive legislation. I believe it’s hard enough to take that step which our people need to take which is to say “What can I do to make a living for myself and my wife and my family – how can I do better?” without restrictions blocking them. I'm very much against that and I believe NZ has suffered terribly from that, and it's still there.
Where I could not change it, I ignored it and bypassed it and rode over it so our people could get into the marketplace and know about it. We went from about 200 businesses, mostly European owned, to almost 1000, with very few new European ones, and our people got into it. They heard my call “Use your creativity, learn how to make a better living for yourself. Whatever you do for yourself that is beneficial is good for the country; the country is no good with poor people – it needs rich people”.
Thirty years now - how do you mark Cook Islanders for what they’ve made of their country over this time of self-government?
I give them high marks. They are responsive to what is good, what's reasonable and logical. They’ve done very well, so well that I don’t think leaders can take them backwards now – at least I hope they can’t.
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