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Prime Minister’s Tribute – Memorial for the late Dr Joseph Williams MBChB MPH QSO QSM

Kia Orana in the name of our Lord. Thank you for your attendance today, the expressions of sympathy and prayers, and the sharing of aroha with the family during this time of sorrow and remembrance.

The celebration of the life of Dr. Joseph Williams, and the honour with which we bestow on him today, stands as a significant representation of success and professional achievement. Dr. Joe established a strong presence in the early years of modern development in the Cook Islands and went on to provide important markers throughout our historical record of national progress.

In the Cook Islands, he was among the chosen ones. A young, highly educated professional, destined for something greater than himself. A knowledge seeker, who was willing to teach, keen to impart the benefits of his higher learning. A healer with the heart to listen. And to understand.
Dr. Joe had a remarkable career of many highlights, but it was the essence of a man who cared and wanted to serve people that puts him in the good company of our national heroes.

The accolades for Dr. Joe have poured forth far and wide – in the Cook Islands, New Zealand, throughout the Pacific, and beyond. The recognition is deserving. Few would achieve such heights and accomplish as much in their lifetime. That one of our own sons could have impacted and touched the lives of so many is simply outstanding. How proud we all are to have had him among us as a Cook Islander, to have had him as a doctor, to lead us as a politician, and to have served our community as a mentor of knowledge and ideas.

Our older generations will remember fondly, the young doctor who returned home in the early 1960s and quickly established himself as a physician of enormous promise. Many generations later, the influence of that young doctor, who hailed from Aitutaki, has since reached many thousands – an early promise fulfilled with the passing of knowledge and ideas to new generations of leaders and health professionals – here and abroad.

Outstanding among his achievements was recognition by the World Health Organisation of his body of work in the elimination of Lymphatic Filariasis from the Cook Islands, and his role at the global level to fight the tropical disease worldwide.

He subsequently received an award of appreciation from WHO in 2016. And his earlier tenure on the WHO Executive Board, as well as his collaborative work with the organisation, regional agencies, and domestic networks in New Zealand, all benefited from his contributions to healthcare.

As a young professional, Dr. Joe soon came to occupy the theatres of two worlds. That of medicine and politics. His potential in public life was recognised incredibly early by Papa Arapati Henry, who provided encouragement and mentoring in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Dr. Joe entered parliament to represent Aitutaki in 1968, and eventually the cabinet as Minister of Health and Education, under Papa Arapati’s leadership during the 70s.

He excelled in both spheres, attaining the highest levels of representation and service. And in many ways, allowing his character to shine through in both politics and medicine, as if they were a natural blend.

As Prime Minister in 1999, for example, Papa Joe carried his doctor’s bedside manner into the leadership role, opening his office door to public consultations and visits – much like he would at his clinic in New Zealand. On one day each week, the veranda of the Prime Minister’s Office often resembled a waiting room!

Despite holding office for only a short time, Dr. Joe accomplished much and set a new pace for leaders to follow. He was not just a pioneer in the medical field. He threw open the doors and shed light on the decisions of his Cabinet meetings, thereby establishing a new approach to transparency in government. He welcomed the chance to do good and took the pulse of the community to maintain a healthy level of public welfare.

In those months towards the end of 1999, Dr Joe also contributed positively on the Pacific stage, attending the Forum Leaders’ Meeting in Palau and in the process, helped strengthen the network of key relationships in the Region.

With his passing, some of the governments of those countries are conveying their heartfelt sympathies to Jill and the family, and our nation. The Republics of Palau, and the Marshall Islands, as well as the President of French Polynesia, for instance, have all sent their deepest condolences.
Visionary leaders, especially those breaking new ground, are often held to a higher degree of criticism and Dr. Joe sometimes had to face the challenge of acceptance.

The prime minister’s role and his parliamentary representation of the Overseas Seat were such challenges, but dedication and service remained the hallmark of his leadership.

Unfortunately, his tenure as leader became a casualty of the times. The new millennium for Cook Islands’ politics was a time of uncertainty and competing interests where the stakes ran very high for more than five years.

Successive coalition governments dominated our political landscape soon after Dr. Joe left office but thankfully, the call to service was part of who he was. He remained true to his people until the circumstances eventually changed and the domestic political door closed before the general election of 2004.

The medical world gained much from Dr. Joe as fresh doors opened to his pioneering spirit after returning to New Zealand. His subsequent research work was ground-breaking, sometimes controversial, but always to advance the science behind the treatment for conditions that afflict many of our Pacific people, such as diabetes and eczema.

While the political doors did not open for Dr. Joe in New Zealand, his contributions continued to be felt in many ways by those in fields of medicine and healthcare.

For his exemplary work over many decades, he was duly honoured by the Palace, being awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in 1974, and Companion of the Queen’s Service Order in 2011 for his services to the Cook Islands community.

Of particular note more recently, has been Dr. Joe’s close collaboration with the Pasifika Medical Association, to whom he was Patron, and previously, as a recipient of the Pasifika Medical Association Service Medal in 2004.

He was an active participant wherever he could play a part and contributed significantly to the ongoing success of our annual Health Conference, alongside compatriots Dr. Kiki Maoate, Dr. Robert Woonton, and many others, who traveled home to give back to the people and to the country.
Papa Joe had been the last surviving member of only our second general election in 1968. And the last of his medical profession from the era of political transition from New Zealand to self-government in 1965. A true pioneer in service to our people through governance and healthcare.

To his wife Jill and all the family members, here and overseas, we embrace you in sorrow to honour our Papa Joe – for his life and his memory.

God Bless us all, Kia Manuia.

ENDS: Enquiries to Jaewynn McKay +682 55486;