CHARGES, DEMANDS, DENIALS IN TONGAN PARLIAMENT

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By Pesi Fonua

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, June 27) – From the Tonga Legislative Assembly, Minutes No. 12, Tuesday June 21:

The Speaker, Hon. Veikune, explained to members the significance of the Mace, which was placed in front of him, a symbol to remind members to respect the Legislature, the Law and the Constitution of Tonga. He said that when the Legislature changed into committee the Mace would be taken down and put in front on the desk of the Chairman of the Whole House Committee.

A Tongatapu People's Representative, Clive Edwards, commented in regards to a claim that Shoreline abused the usage of the Development Licence that was given to them by importing a ferry for a different company and construction materials. He said that reliable information had been gathered but he wondered what the Minister of Labour, the authority that issued Development Licence, was going to do about it? Was he going to take legal action?

Trust Fund

Clive's second question related to the Trust Fund. He said that under the law the Trust Fund was supposed to be audited annually and an audited report presented to the House, but the Trust Fund had not been audited during the past six or so years. He also knew that court decisions had been made in the USA about the missing fund, and those who benefited from the fund had been identified, and legal actions were supposed to be taken against these people, but such action has been discouraged. He wanted to know when was this matter going to be presented to the House?

The Minister of Commerce, Hon. Fred Sevele, said that he had been on the post for less than three months and work was still being carried out with regards to the Development Licence that was given to Shoreline. He said that they were not rushing in to take legal action unless they had some hard evidence. He said that it was not only his ministry that was involved, but also the Customs Department who approved the release of the goods from the wharf.

The Minister of Finance, Hon. Siosiua 'Utoikamanu, said that with regards to the Trust Fund, there was one more court case to be heard in the USA, and that matters were not ready yet to be presented to the House.

Clive queried why there had been no audited report. The Minister of Finance Siosiua 'Utoikamanu said that the last Audited Report on the Trust Fund for 2000-02 had been presented to the House and the 2002-03 was to be presented to Privy Council this week, and he would tabled it into the house next week. He said that the financial report for 2003-04 was still being worked on by his staff.

'Akilisi said that he has written about five minutes ago to the Minister of Finance and asked him what was he going to do about what he consider to be illegal activity when Shoreline transferred millions of pa'anga to bank accounts overseas with the approval of the Reserve Bank. He said that both he and the public wanted a definite answer from the minister soon, within the next two weeks.

Budget

The Legislature was dissolved into Committee and debate continued with the Budget Statement.

The Minister of Commerce, Hon. Feleti Sevele, responded to comments made by a Vava'u People's Representative, Samiu Vaipulu, the day before about working opportunities for Tongans in New Zealand and Australia doing labouring works such as picking fruits etc. He said he contacted both the New Zealand and the Australian High Commissions and they both said that it was not possible for such a working scheme. Feleti said that it was also reported in the New Zealand Herald that Phil Goff told a Fijian delegation that New Zealand was not going to introduce any such scheme.

A Ha'apai People's Representative, Fineasi Funaki, made an appeal to government to make it possible for elected members of the House to make an input into the formulation of the national budget, during the Budget Formulation Process. He said that at this stage of the budget debate there was very little contribution that they could make because figures and programs had been set.

The Governor of Ha'apai, Hon. Malupo, reminded the member that he has the power to change some of the allocations for ministries, and he should wait until they got into votes for individual ministries.

Fineasi said that the Governor's view was an old view and that was not what he was referring to. He said that he was referring to working in co-operation with government to formulate the budget before it was tabled into the House.

The Governor went on to stress that the House has the power to alter the budget, and he reminded the member of a decision passed by the House during the budget debate for government ministries not to import new vehicles, and it was approved.

Clive reminded the House that government has a law and regulation stopping the importation of vehicles that were more than 10 years old. But he said that 14 and 15 years old vehicles were being imported into the country, and this was despite the fact that there were regulation and law against it.

Fineasi responded to the comment made by the Governor of Ha'apai by pointing out that the power of the House was concentrated on the table of the Cabinet Ministers. He said that the PRs had no power in the House.

The Minister of Police corrected the point made by the member. He reminded the member of how the House stopped the treasury from giving more money to the Royal Tongan Airlines, even though it was the wish of Cabinet.

The Prime Minister, HRH Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, told Fineasi that he thought that the PRs' table had no power then he should go home, because there was no use for him to be in the House. Fineasi reacted to the PM's comment by pleading with the Chairman to let him finish his speech.

The PM changed his mind and said that the member could stay but those who were already pensioned should go home. (Akilisi was one PR who has already pension).

A Dream

Fineasi went on about how he sincerely believed that the way forward for Tonga was for government and the elected members of parliament to work closely together, particularly in the drafting of the annual budget. He referred to the famous saying by a black American civil rights leader, Dr Marti Luther King, "I have a dream". He said that Matin Luther King's dream was that one day black and white Americans would have equal rights. His dream was for government to create an environment that would enable members to work together for the prosperity of the people.

'Akilisi reminded Fineasi that Martin Luther King was shot before his dream became true, for black and white American to play, swim and to ride on the same bus.

Clive said that Fineasi's reference to Martin Luther King's dream was very enlightening, but he wondered if there was any one in Tonga with such a vision or had he got a vision that they could make happen?

Fineasi said that he wished that the Cabinet Ministers' table would have such a vision.

Noble Veikune said that the division of power in Tonga had been clearly defined in the Constitution, the Cabinet, Privy Council, Parliament and the Judicary. He said that problems occurred when members stepped out from their own circle.

Fineasi finished his speech by pleading with government to remove the barriers that separated them so that they would be able to work in harmony and live in peace.

Public Enterprise Reform

Clive, on a different issue commented on the Public Enterprise Reform program that was introduced by the Minister of Finance with legislation in 2002. He said that the legislation made directors in boards responsible for the decision they made. He also pointed out that after introducing the legislation the one positive decision made by the Minister of Finance was to exclude himself from being a member of any board. It was a decision that the Prime Minister and the Deputy PM should follow so that they could see clearly what was going on in the board. Clive said that the PM had put himself in a difficult position by being the chairman of the board of Tonga Communications Corp., because at the same time Tonfön owed TCC about $5 million for the use of TCC's Interconnection Lines. He said that TCC couldn't pressure Tonfön, despite the fact that the PM probably wanted to pressure Tonfön to pay up.

He said that the same thing happened with the Trust Fund, because the people involved were in the Trust, making it difficult for anyone to do anything about it because the people who should take action were involved.

The PM said that Clive did not know that things had changed since he left Cabinet, and TCC and Tonfön had agreed on a solution.

Clive responded that it still did not make any difference to the point he made, and that was for the PM to resign from the boards because of a conflict of interest. He said that the PM should free himself so that he can make decisions, instead of the government being tied up in a knot because of ministers' involvement in boards.

The PM said that when Clive was in Cabinet he sacked the two ministers because of the Trust Fund problem.

Clive responded that he had no authority to sack any Cabinet Ministers. He suggested for the PM to check the record on the Ministers who were advised by the Prince Regent at the time, the Crown Prince to carry out his decision. He stressed that he had nothing to do with the sacking of the two ministers.

Clive stressed the point he was making was for the PM not to get involved in trivial details but to allow himself to have a better look at the bigger picture, freeing government to make decisions and move forward.

The PM wanted to know if there was a conflict of interest when Clive was a member of the board of TCC and of the Tonga Electric Power Board.

Clive said there was no conflict of interest, but for him as the PM there would be. He should free himself in order to observe clearly what his ministers were doing in the boards.

Clive told the House the idea for Ministers not to be members of boards was part of his campaigning issue in 1996.

Clive gave an example of how the PM had lost touch with what was going on in boards. He said that the Minister of Finance read out the day before the names of government enterprises, their revenues, expenditures and profits. It said that the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia made a profit of $6 million during the last financial year. He said that the report was a straight out lie because the company had a debt of $14 millions, and they had recently been found guilty in a civil case in court.

The Minister of Finance said that the Shipping Corporation was just a managing company, all its debts and the repayment of loans were taken care of by government.

Berthing rate too expensive

Clive moved on and claimed that there was no co-ordination between government and some of its boards, and an example of that was the 15% Consumption Tax that was introduced by the Minister in April with the understanding that it would replace the Port and Service Tax, the Sales Tax and fuel tax and therefore the price of imported goods would be cheaper. He said that the opposite was taking place because the Port Authority had increased their berthing rate by 25%, and it had driven away cruise ships and cargo ships. He said that some cargo ships had been off loading Tongan cargo in Pago Pago, they did not want to come to Nuku'alofa because it was too expensive.

A Tongatapu PR, 'Isileli Pulu, said that the PM chaired about seven boards, including the Reserve Bank, and some of these boards dealt with issues which were well above him. He wondered if the Minister of Finance had the authority under the Reform Act of 2002 to stop the PM from being members of boards.

The PM responded that the difference was because matters that the member thought were not very important, for government were actually very important.

The Minister of Finance said that there was a Cabinet decision in 2003 to start withdrawing ministers from being members of these boards. He said there were 90 directors in all government boards. He said that since 2003 they have embarked on the task of evaluating these directors and they have just completed that last week.

Tonfön debts to TCC

Clive wanted to know if Tonfön had paid the $4.5 million that it owed TCC.

The PM said that Tonfon would not pay TCC because both parties have signed an MOU.

Clive said that the board of TCC had made a resolution tht Tonfon must pay, and it was unacceptable for them to do whatever they wanted with this public property.

The PM responded that the board of TCC had moved forward from where it was when the member was on the board of TCC.

Clive expressed his disappointment that it appeared that nothing could be put right because there was always somebody over-ruling decisions.

'Akilisi reminded Clive that he had already given the reason why it was difficult for government to make any decision. He said that any business that the Crown Prince, the Prince Regent was involved in the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers were reluctant to do anything about it. He said that that was why he proposed but it was rejected by the House to draft a law, stopping the Crown Prince from getting involved in businesses.

'Akilisi said that when the Port Authority wanted to charge Shoreline, Sefo (Ramanlal) apparently warned them about it, the next thing that happened, the Crown Prince sacked all the board members. He said that Sefo was in charge of the Port Authority.

Clive finished his speech by warning the PM about Sefo Ramanlal who was supposed to be spying around TCC with the intention of taking over U-Call, he told the PM to warn his staff.

The Chairman called for votes on the Budget Statement and it was carried 17-1. Against was 'Isileli Pulu.

Amendment to Consumption Tax Act

The Minister of Finance proposed for the House to proceed with two bills, one was an amendment to the Consumption Tax Act and the other was an amendment to the Custom Duty Act. He asked for the Appropriation Act to be introduced later. The Minister said that the amendment to the CT Act were mainly of technical details.

'Uliti Uata moved for the debate on the two bills to be postponed to the next day for they did not have the Principal Acts to study the amendment.

Royal chapel and Newington scholarship

The Chairman postponed the debate on the bill to the following day, and announced for the committee to proceed with the Estimated Budget. The debate started with Vote No. 1 - Palace Office.

'Isileli Pulu did not support a proposal for the building of a new Royal Chapel. He thought it was unwarranted considering the current depressed economic state of the country. He also queried a scholarship fund of $45,000 because there were no more royal children left to be educated. He wanted to know who got the scholarship.

The Minister of Finance said that it was a Cabinet decision to build a new Royal Chapel, and with regards to the scholarship, it was the King's scholarship for one student to Newington College.

Noble Veikune thought it was disrespectful of the member to insist on trying to find out who got the King's scholarship. He reminded the member that under the Constitution the king was sacred.

'Isileli responded that he was in the House representing the people, and the people wanted to know.

With regards to the Royal Chapel, Veikune said that at numerous times in the past the House proposed for the building of a new Palace, but the King objected saying that he was happy where he lived. Then the King wanted a not a new Palace but a new Chapel where he could pray, so he thought that a new Royal Chapel should be built.

Samiu Vaipulu asked the Minister of Finance if he had money to build the Royal Chapel, to which he replied yes. Samiu then said he supported the idea to build the chapel.

A Ha'apai People's Representative, 'Uliti Uata, queried the salary of the King's Private Secretary of $40,000 per annum, which he said was too much. He also queried if it was still necessary for government to pay the Royal Chaplain's salary of $16,000 per annum.

'Uliti said that the $2 million allocation for the new Royal Chapel was too much. He wanted to know more details on why it would cost so much for such a small building.

Clive made a general comment on the budget. He proposed for the Minister of Finance to cut down on government expenses such as overseas travelling, and set aside a fund of $6 million to be given to the Minister of Commerce to try and revitalise the economy. He said he was in favour of the Royal Chapel, since the minister said that he had the money.

The PM disagreed with Clive on his proposal for $6 million to be set aside to finance small projects to revitalise the economy. He thought it was not wise to make economic plans to be funded with tax revenue that they had not collected.

Clive responded that the PM did not understanding what he was talking about. He said he was not asking for a new allocation, it was just a matter of re-allocating funds, taking it from Sione and giving it to Paula.

The Minister of Finance supported Clive's proposition because it was very important at this point of time for government and the Private Sector to work together and revive the economy. He asked for a bit of time to work out some figures.

June 28, 2005

Matangi Tonga Magazine: www.matangitonga.to 

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