FEATURE: Cook Islands farewells Sir Geoffrey Henry

A proud Cook Islander, the Speaker of the Cook Islands Parliament, Sir Geoffrey Henry, who earlier had led his country for more than a decade, died on Wednesday night at home surrounded by his family.

He was 72.

Former Cook Islands prime minister Sir Geoffrey Henry has died aged 72. [Reuters]

Former Cook Islands prime minister Sir Geoffrey Henry has died aged 72. [Reuters]

Sean Dorney

Last Updated: Thu, 10 May 2012 19:54:00 +1000

The Cook Islands News reports that last weekend, gravely ill with cancer, Sir Geoffrey was discharged from the Rarotonga Hospital so he could spend his last days in the comfort of his home in Takuvaine.

Sir Geoffrey, a law graduate from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, was at times a controversial figure in the Cooks.

The Henry name has been closely associated with political power in the Cook Islands since before independence in 1965.

Sir Geoffrey's even more controversial cousin, Sir Albert Henry, was the first ever Prime Minister. He is probably best remembered in Australia for his unstinting support for Milan Brych who claimed to have a cure for cancer and whose clinic in the Cooks so impressed the Queensland Premier in the late 1970s, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, that Brych was invited to move to Queensland.

Albert Henry was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1979 because of a scandal over using government money to fly voters in from New Zealand for the general election. He was stripped of his knighthood. In disgrace he handed over the leadership of the Cook Islands party to his youger cousin, Geoffrey.

By then Geoffrey Henry had been an MP for 14 years having won a seat in Parliament back in that Independence year, 1965.

He was briefly Prime Minister in 1983. But he dominated politics in the Cook Islands in the 1990s serving as Prime Minister from February, 1989, to July, 1999.

Television New Zealand's Pacific Correspondent, Barbara Dreaver, who worked in the Cook Islands early in her journalist career says Sir Geoffrey was a staunch defender of the Pacific region prepared to stand up to bigger countries. He was very critical of French nuclear testing in his country's next door neighbour, French Polynesia.

But Dreaver says over-spending by his government and an inflated public service brought on economic turmoil. The country almost went bankrupt.

"Desperate to raise funds," she said, "he issued letters of guarantee for US$1.1 billion. An independent report found the Cook Islands were a gullible victim in a fraud which could have cost it all its assets."

Sir Geoffrey resigned as Prime Minister in 1999 to avoid his Cook Islands Party disintegrating.

He later served as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister before finally retiring from Parliament in 2006.

He made the headlines in New Zealand and around the region in 2010 when he was ordered off an Air New Zealand flight for saying to a stewardess someone thought he was a terrorist.

Sir Geoffrey's version was that he had been ordered to remove his jacket twice while going through a security check - a painful experience because he was suffering from a sore shoulder.

He said that when he got on board he simply said, "Someone back there thinks I'm a terrorist."

This was reported to the Air New Zealand pilot who threw him off the plane.

Sir Geoffrey argued that the pilot overreacted and should have applied "a modicum of commonsense" to the situation.

Last year, he was appointed from outside Parliament to be the Cook Islands Speaker.

Sir Geoffrey is survived by his wife, Louisa, five children and ten grandchildren.


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