Matangi Tonga

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Oct. 28) – When the Tongan government launched its Economic and Public Sector Reform Program in April 2002, it was hailed by government, the private sector, and the public, as the beginning of a "fight back" economic recovery initiative.

But since 2002, the "reform" has become just another word for hopeful-thinking: hoping that our inefficiencies, nepotism, selfishness, and our tendency to just change direction in mid-air, will somehow change. Hoping that by putting down our dreams in writing, and with a lot of prayer, they may eventually come true.

The two goals of the reform program that were emphasized vigorously by the Hon. Siosiua 'Utoikamanu, the Minister of Finance and a member of the Cabinet Committee on Reform, during the launching of the Reform Program were to improve the efficiency of government and to create an environment more conducive to economic development and growth.

Since 2002, there has been no noticeable improvement in the efficiency of government. Instead, there has been some major changes; a Public Service Commission has been established; a new Retirement Fund Scheme and a new salary structure have been introduced; all with hope that it would bring efficiency.

Directors or secretaries are now known as Heads of Department, and with their new titles they secured themselves a two-year working contract with government and a salary rise of about 60 percent, raising their basic salaries to $40,000 (US$20,290) per annum, well above that of Cabinet Ministers, who receive about $28,000 (US$14,200). The rest of the Civil Service, including Cabinet Ministers received a 5 percent rise.

Continuing with the drive for more efficiency in Government, in August three Cabinet Ministers were sacked, and the Prime Minister announced that government Ministries had been restructured. The Ministry of Police became a Department of Police, coming under Home Affairs. The Ministry of Labour also became a department. The Prime Minister was also relieved of two posts, Foreign Affairs and Defence, and two new ministers were appointed.

But then, a few days later, doing an about-turn, the Prime Minister announced that the old ministries remained, and the new structure would be established later.

Have we noticed any more efficiency in government services? The answer is a definite no.

This is not surprising given the pressures on Cabinet Ministers, working for a lower salary than their subordinate HODs. Ministers must surely be working in fear, without a work contract, and with the possibility of being told to go home at any time. The working relationship between the Ministers, HODs and the rest of the Civil Service must be a difficult one.

Does this situation create an environment conducive for economic development and growth?

Definitely, not.

Meanwhile, the Private Sector has been let down by government during the last twelve months, where endeavours have been either knocked out or knocked back in their development. The restrictive requirement of 20 percent foreign ownership of news media that was introduced last year, later to be overturned by the Supreme Court, was seen by the private sector as a clear signal that government will not hesitate to kill or to take over any business sector whenever they want to.

Since then we have seen more of that, the latest being the taking back by the Port Authority from Port Services Ltd. of the cargo handling at Queen Salote Wharf.

So, how serious is government about its privatisation initiative?

We will never attract genuine investors to this country, Tongans or foreigners alike, if government continues to pass legislation to close Tonga down, or to move in and buy entrepreneurs out because they have other plans.

October 29, 2004

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