The Cook Islands' 24-member Parliament operates on the Westminster system, with a prime minister as the head of government. The cabinet consists of up to eight ministers. While almost all members of parliament are men, most of the chiefly titles are held by women, who are also the main landowners. In theory, the 21-member House of Ariki (chiefs) should be consulted on custom and land issues, but in practice this seldom happens.
On all the outer islands there's an appointed chief administrative officer (CAO), formerly known as the resident agent. Although each island also has an elected Island Council, the CAO runs the local administration on behalf of the local and central governments.
Party politics, often based on personalities, is vicious. The most dramatic event of the early years of self-government was the removal of Premier Albert Henry and the Cook Islands Party from office in 1978 by the chief justice of the High Court when it was proven that Henry had misused government funds to fly in his voters from New Zealand during the preceding election. Then, Queen Elizabeth II stripped Sir Albert of his knighthood. This was the first time in Commonwealth history that a court ruling had changed a government; the shock waves are still being felt on Rarotonga. Albert Henry died in 1981, it's said of a broken heart.
Albert Henry's successor, Sir Tom Davis of the Democratic Party, served as prime minister from 1978 until 1987. The Cook Islands Party, led by Sir Geoffrey Henry, a cousin of Albert, won the 1989 and 1994 elections. Henry's tenure was marked by financial disasters and a population collapse. The three main parties are currently the Cook Islands Party, the Democratic Alliance Party, and the Cook Islands First Party. Office space, vehicles, expense accounts, jobs for relatives, and overseas travel are among the perks parliamentarians enjoy in addition to their generous salaries. Parliament only sits around 18 days a year so there's plenty of leisure time for members. At election time, some Cook Island politicians are not above resorting to bribery and intimidation if it helps protect their place at the trough.