TONGA’S STYMIED DEMOCRACY STUCK IN TIME

Editorial

TONGA’S STYMIED DEMOCRACY STUCK IN TIME

Matangi Tonga

NUKU´ALOFA, Tonga (November 29) - The status of Tonga's political reform remains exactly where it was stuck when the members of parliament voted on it before the closure of parliament at the end of October.

So where are we with our political reform? What has happened to the effort to restructure our system of government? Are the public going to see any thoughtful process leading up to this most important decision?

At the moment Tonga's political reform is not a question of when, but rather, a question of what?

This year the Tonga Legislative Assembly voted and passed a proposal by government for a proposed 30-member parliament - as an idea that still has to go through a process to be finalized. The 30 members it was proposed should be made up of 17 People's Representatives to be elected by the people, nine Nobles' Representatives to be elected by the nobles, and four to be appointed by the King.

The proposals for change that have been passed by parliament remain as proposals to be worked on by legal and reform experts. As far as the public is concerned, at this point of time the only thing that is definite is that a majority of Tongans want to change the composition of their political system. How we are going to do it remains to be decided and finalized.

Most of the People's Representatives want this new composition to be introduced at next year's Parliamentary election.

Government argues that the Constitution, acts and regulations need to be amended first, and they proposed 2010, although there was still an element of doubt if all the necessary legal work could be done before 2010. The difficult point about trying to amend the Constitution, Acts and Regulations is that in reality Tongans have not agreed on the change they want for the political system.

It is absurd to talk about amending legislation when we still do not really know for sure what we want and the nation has not yet agreed on the changes that we want to take place.

Tongans cannot allow members of parliament to change the system for us, because it is obvious they have a vested interest in keeping themselves as individuals in parliament in order to receive the high salaries that they gave themselves this year.

The notion that there is no need for a referendum because it will cause a division within the community is unacceptable, considering that the thrust now is for a more democratic form of government. There will have to be a referendum.

If 'Akilisi Pohiva is the spokesperson for the other six PRs, he said on their behalf that if the 30-member structure will not be introduced next year then they would ignore the decision of the House to accept the 30-member proposal.

He has said the PRs will go back and support the NCPR's proposed composition - the very proposal they opposed in the first place. Their opposition to the NCPR proposal led to their formation of the People's Reform Committee, which they wanted the House and the government to endorse, and during this meddling around, the riots of 16/11 took place.

Amidst the confusion over the process of reform, the House voted on two separate motions - rejecting one for the so-called reform to take place in 2009 and then accepting a motion for those who want the reform to take place in 2010.

However, neither of these motions had a correct three readings because some members thought it was all one motion. The legality of the motion/motions therefore remains open to question.

There is a growing dissatisfaction among Tongans in Tonga and overseas because after looking at the prospect of the 30-members parliament proposed, we are going to end up with a parliament without any serious opposition, an undemocratic, one-sided form of government.

This is because from the 30 members elected the government will be formed by taking away the following: 1 Prime Minister, 2 Governors and 15 Ministers. So 18 of the elected members will become Cabinet Ministers.

From the remaining 12, take away one as the Speaker, then it leaves us with the 11 "left overs", after the best of the bunch have been picked to form a government.

The 11 compares to the 18 nobles' and people's representatives we have now who may choose to vote against the government if they wish.

So it is clear that any potential opposition to the government in the House will be seriously weakened.

Therefore the proposed new government will rule supreme without any checks and balances, until the next election.

The scenarios that could result from such a structure have not been examined in view of the public. Consider, for instance, that the 11 leftovers could be made up of nine nobles and two PRs. Is this better than what we have now?

Or, what if they are 11 PRs -- which means that all nine nobles must be in the government as ministers. Is this better than what we have now?

How are the ministers going to be appointed? Are the elected members going to vote among themselves to decide the ministerial positions? If so, what will happen if they all vote for themselves? How will it be decided?

The only thing that is democratic about this composition is that the 30 members were elected by the people, but once you cast your vote you then go home and wait for the next election, which is proposed to take place every four years, instead of the current three years.

Our attempt to restructure our political system so far is a re-enactment of the parable of the Tower of Babel and in real terms we have walked away from the building site with half a structure in place.

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