TONGAN CANDIDATE HOPES FOR MAJOR CHANGE

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By Pesi Fonua

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 3) - Lopeti Senituli, 49, a veteran political activist who has drafted five models of an alternative form of government for Tonga, is now a candidate in Tonga's March 17 general elections.

He is one of 31 candidates competing for the three Tongatapu People’s Representative seats in the Tongan Legislative Assembly.

While his first four models of government were only topics of discussion for members of the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement, of which he is a former director, Lopeti’s ambition is to get his fifth model of government implemented.

In general, his strategy is that if he is elected into the new Tongan parliament, he will call for parliament to establish a Constitutional Review Commission, which he believes should have five-members including representatives of the Nobles, the church leaders, the King, the people, and women.

He said that such a commission would need a permanent staff and a mandate to collect information and to look at the alternative models of government that various people have written up for Tonga.

"The commission would look at the models of government and come out with whatever would be appropriate for Tonga," Senituli said. "If the overwhelming feeling is no change, that is the end of the story. If it is to make changes, then they present the pros and cons of the model idea to the House. If the House agrees, then it is presented to the King, and if he agrees then we amend the Constitution according to the new model of government."

Lopeti strongly believes that this idea will be so successful that he says, "It is possible that the next election will be under a new model of government."

Lopeti believes that the people should elect all the 30 members of the Tongan parliament and then the King may appoint his 12 ministers from the elected members. This is the basis of his fifth alternative model of government for Tonga and the main thrust of his election campaign

He would like to see the composition of the parliament as nine Nobles' Representatives, six Women's Representatives and 15 People's Representatives. The break down of the People's Representatives is seven for Tongatapu, three each for Ha’apai and Vava’u and one each for the Niuas and ‘Eua.

With the six Women's Representatives, the break down is two for Tongatapu, and one each for Ha’apai, Vava’u, the Niuas and ‘Eua. Lopeti said that with regards to the Noble Representatives, the people (and not only the nobles) would pick them from the 33 nobles of realm. Under this model of government, he said there would be no Privy Council, and the king would no longer have legislative and executive powers.

Lopeti said that there are still a few problem areas with regards to the election of nobles, "because nobles with bigger estates will have a better chance of being elected than nobles with small estates, but that is an area that we have to have another look at."

The six seats reserved for women are necessary, he believes, because of the low representation of women in parliament. Lopeti said that in many countries of the world, despite the right for women to be candidates and the right to vote, "they have still less than five percent representation in parliament. We are naturally inclined not to vote for women, and so I think we should have a permanent quota for women."

Lopeti said that the main problem that Tonga is facing today is, "the duplication of executive power between Cabinet and the Privy Council and the duplication of Legislative Power between the Legislative Assembly and Cabinet, and the Privy Council."

Lopeti said that the duplication of power was evident when government tried to enforce a ban on the importation of the Taimi ‘o Tonga. "After the Supreme Court declared invalid the prohibition that was enforced on the Taimi, the King then drafted an ordinance using his power in Privy Council to draft legislation trying to by-pass the decision that was made by the Supreme Court. The court later decided that the Ordinance was invalid and illegal."

Lopeti said that another example of the duplication of power was when ‘Etuate Lavulavu, the No. 2 Vava’u People’s Representative and the founder of the ‘Unuaki ‘o Tonga Institution requested funds from Parliament for his school. It was turned down, so he went to Privy Council and his requested was granted. "I think about 30,000 to 50,000 (US$15,500 to $25,900) pa’anga was given to him. The case should be challenged in court to find out who made the decision."

Lopeti believes that the urgent need for Tonga is for good governance, "and for political reform before an economic reform. Those who say let's deal with the economy first, are those who want to leave things as they are; for example, no unions for the workers, etc., and the construction of the Tonga High School by the Chinese. We don’t know what law they are working under with regards to the treatment of their workers. I think Chinese workers are working under inhumane conditions. It is actually a prison camp. Now, is that the economic development that we want, with no attention to the right of the workers? It is important that we address human rights and governance and our Constitution first."

If Lopeti Senituli is elected as one of the representatives of Tongatapu, would he accept an appointment as a Cabinet Minister?

Lopeti has changed his stance on the issue. Initially, he disagreed with the idea, "but on further research, I found out that is the normal way of appointing ministers anywhere in the world. You are appointed at the discretion of the Prime Minister, so you are appointed so long you do what the Prime Minister or the party says. The minute you deviate or clash with the Prime Minister, you have to go. I think it is a more powerful approach, because members are elected into the House on the understanding that they will speak on the behalf of the people.

"The difference from the current procedure is that you are appointed with the discretion of the King. Whether you have done good or bad, once the King decides for you to go, you have to go. The point is that if you are in difference with the Prime Minister, and you don’t think that you are strong enough to remain inside, then the solution is that you should resign. If the Prime Minister thinks that you are a threat to the government then he has the right to kick you out."

Lopeti was a director of the Tongan Human Rights and Democracy Movement for three years, before he left. He is currently the Executive Director of the Tonga Community Development Trust in Nuku'alofa.

Lopeti said that he has entered the parliamentary race in Tongatapu after weighing up carefully his prospects of winning, and he is convinced that he has a chance. He has teamed up with a woman candidate Fuiva Kavaliku.

"I’ve worked with Fuiva in the social society for many years, when she was with the World Council of Churches, and we worked together in the UN; she came from the women and I came from the Peace and Freedom Network. Our aims are similar. We are in to win, and this is my best chance to win. She is from Hahake, and Vaheloto, and I am from Hihifo, and together we can share. We are aiming for the other two seats, I think it will be difficult to get rid of ‘Akilisi," said Senituli.

February 4, 2005

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