TONGA POLITICAL REFORM A LONG WAY FROM REALITY

Editorial

Matangi Tonga

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (July 14, 2008) – The Tongan parliament once again has found itself in a "Tower of Babel" situation, when their work toward establishing a new political system for Tonga had to stop because members either have changed their minds, don't want to understand each other or simply don't know what to do next.

On Tuesday July 1, in a state of despondency, members decided to close the House and have three weeks of soul searching to try and find a "Way Forward".

The Princess Regent, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, on the opening of parliament at the end of May, told the nation that the 2008-10 parliamentary sessions was historical because it would be the last under the existing political system. She said that a Bill would be tabled into parliament in June for the formation of a Commission to draft all legal requirements before a new political system would be introduced in 2010.

But since then the Bill to form a Commission, which was presented to the Whole House Committee for debate on the evening of June 30, has received a mixed reaction.

Several serious issues with the proposed reform are beginning to become more clearly apparent to the members, and as they look beneath the rhetoric of their initial demands for fast action on reform there is a growing realisation of the huge amount of work that has yet to be done in the process of deciding on the best new system for Tonga and then in drawing up the necessary legislation to make it happen.

In tabling the Bill to set-up a political reform commission this year the government was responding to pressure for reform by setting deadlines so that things can move forward fast.

But now Clive Edwards has become concerned about the future dominance of Cabinet ministers in a fully-elected parliament if it goes the way it is heading.

Meanwhile, 'Akilisi Pohiva does not want to go back to adjust the parliamentary composition figures that parliament decided on last year.

Finally, the nobles have spoken and Hon. Nuku came out expressing the utter dismay by the nobles of the proposed new composition of parliament where they will become a minority

In order for government to introduce political reform by the date that has been set for 2010, the commission will have to be formed to look at all the work that has to be done.

So even though a deadline has been set, in reality everything depends on what commission is going to tell Parliament. If commission says: "look this is ridiculous, it can't be done in two years," then where does that leave the timetable that Parliament agreed on last year to pacify the activists?

By setting a deadline last year before fully comprehending the task at hand parliament was setting the cart before the horse and now, from this difficult position, everything depends on the members finding a way forward.

Teisina Fuko is wary about the Commission taking away the authority of the House, while both 'Uliti Uata and 'Akilisi Pohiva want more time to study the Bill and the proposed reform.

Clive Edwards on the other hand is querying the membership composition of the new parliament that the House voted on in 2007. He would have much preferred for the king not to be given the privilege to appoint four members of parliament. The composition that the House agreed to in 2007 was 17 members elected by the people, nine by the nobles and four by the king, (known as 17-9-4).

After saying that, Clive then expressed his concern for a small parliament that will be made up of elected members, because it would then be dominated by Cabinet Ministers. It would be an imbalanced House and therefore he said that the current composition of the House was indeed the best.

The sudden changing of position by the People's Representatives is not new. It has happened before when the Tu'ipelehake Committee presented their report in 2006, hailed by Dr Sitiveni Halapua, who wrote the report, as a Road Map for Political Change in Tonga, calling for all members of parliament to be elected by the people and the nobles, (17 by the people and nine by the nobles).

The government then came up with a proposal for 17-9-4, so instead of a 26 members parliament there would be 30 members.

16/11

'Akilisi and other PRs objected to it and presented an alternative from the People's Reform Committee for 21 People's Representatives and nine Nobles Representatives. These were the figures that 'Akilisi and other PRs presented to the Prime Minister in his office on the afternoon of 16/11. The Prime Minister signed a document presented to him but it was too late, looters were already on the roll, looting, while arsonists set fire to buildings, starting with buildings owned by the Prime Minister and Chinese business people, as well as those of the King and his business associates.

Last year, 2007, when the House formed its Tripartite Committee for political reform, 'Akilisi and some of the PRs disagreed with the government's proposed composition of 17-9-4. They wanted to adopt the Tu'ipelehake Committee's figure of 17-9 and they wanted it to happen first in 2008 then 2009. But after the election in April 2008 'Akilisi and other PRs agreed for 2010.

The position of the House with regards to the proposed Political Reform for Tonga at the moment is unstable. Clive's sudden concern about a parliament dominated by ministers is a real concern, and it is not a new issue - having been raised for over three years in reports on Matangi Tonga Online.

Clive and 'Akilisi's shifting positions over the issues of the number of members of the House and a date for when the reform should take place are now further destabilising the process of reform.

On the government side, the Deputy Prime Minister Dr Viliami Tangi has said that their position is to move forward with the process, because they want changes, but they also want a change for the better.

But the real killer blow and the one that will make us all sit back and think carefully about the kind of parliament that we should have was what Noble Nuku told the House on Tuesday July 1, that the nobles dislike the political reform proposal, because the people will have more seats in the House than the nobles.

Finding a clear constitutional alternative to our current political system without disrupting our social structure is not going to happen overnight. Once again, the most important issue facing Tonga is not when we will change but what we want to change into.

Matangi Tonga Magazine: www.matangitonga.to/home/

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