TONGA BLUNDER PUTS ELECTIONS IN QUESTION

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Lawmakers fail to confirm new voter boundaries

By Pesi Fonua NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, April 27, 2010) – Tonga’s Political Reform and its November election is in a state of limbo because parliament, after spending two weeks of a special session to assess the Royal Constituency Boundaries Commission Report on proposed constituency boundaries, failed to legally confirm the boundaries of the proposed 17 Constituencies before the House closed on Thursday, April 22.

Although the House had verbally agreed, in principle, for the boundaries as defined under "Option 2" that was recommended by the Royal Commission, and although "Option 2" was supported by a majority of the House with a 13-12 vote on a motion in the Whole House Committee, the House did not confirm this with a second and third reading in Legislature, as it originally intended to do.

It was simply a case of side-stepping procedure, and instead of passing the decision with a second and third reading, the House simply closed while accepting the word of the Prime Minister that cabinet would abide by the result of the 13-12 vote in the Whole House Committee and accept Option 2, and that the government would leave things as they were stipulated by Option 2.

The deal was that Cabinet would not proceed and present another option for the House to choose from, as the government had revealed that it really wanted to do. The government had wanted to pursue an option that offered an equal value of votes in all constituencies and was, therefore, more democratic than the divisions proposed under "Option 2".

The uncertainties over the Constituencies Boundaries was further compounded by the fact that the two Bills that were presented to the House to facilitate the drawing up of legislation for the reform, were passed in a flash without any debate at all, after the Prime Minster declared that Cabinet would support "Option 2".

These were Bill No. 11 to amend the Constitution to facilitate legislations for the Political Reform and Bill No. 15 for the Establishment of a Boundary Commission.

Members, particularly People's Representatives, were overwhelmed by the willingness of government to support "Option 2"; though given its contents, it is not clear why. They hailed the move by the Prime Minister as a sign that there was unity in the House, and they, at last, had become one in their strive to introduce a more democratic system of government for Tonga.

The huge irony of the situation was that the democratic element of the existing system, which is for the People's Representatives and the Nobles' Representatives to be united in their votes in order check the executive government was, in this instance, used to introduce what is actually a more undemocratic Electoral System.

For equal weighted votes the accepted range in the number of voters per constituency ranged from 5494 to 6714 to with a 10 percent allowance for variation.

But "Option 2" proposes a marked difference in the number of voters per constituency. The number of voters for constituencies, in Tongatapu ranges from 7020 to 8,029; in Vava'u from 4929 to 5182; in Ha'apai from 3635 to 3709; in 'Eua 5392 and in Niuatoputapu only 1524.

The House found itself in such an abnormal situation simply because of the urgency of pushing to meet an election deadline that it had set itself for late November.

Full and proper debate was impossible because when the House reconvened on April 6 to pass Reform Bills and to assess the Royal Constituency Boundaries Commission Report on proposed constituency boundaries, the four-volume report was not ready because it had not been translated into Tongan.

The Bill for the Establishment of a Boundary Commission was introduced and the debate was very difficult because there were references to the Royal Constituency Boundaries Commission Report but some members had not seen the report prior to that day, and those who made relevant comments had read only the English version of the report.

The Tongan version of the report was not tabled into the House until Monday morning, April 19 but by the evening, Noble Tangipa had already moved for the House to adopt "Option 2", and by Tuesday evening it was all over.

Somehow, it appears most unusual that while the House was debating the report in the Whole House Committee and had not endorsed the report, it suddenly decided to adopt one of the three Options that were presented in the report. After Noble Tangipa, the Nobles' Representative from the Niuas moved for the committee to adopt Option 2, it was seconded and the Chairman, Noble Lasike called for votes, and it was carried 13-12.

The Chairman dissolved the Committee into Legislature and the speaker was ready to call for votes on the second and third readings of the motion for the House to adopt Option 2, but did not because of pleading from Cabinet Ministers to postpone the voting to the following day - so that government could introduce another option for consideration.

So when the House reconvened on Tuesday evening, April 20, there was high anticipation that government would present its alternative Option. Instead, the Prime Minister, Dr. Feleti Sevele caught members by surprise when he said that government would not present an alternative option after all, but it would instead abide by the vote of the majority of the House of the previous day.

The Speaker did not think there was any need for a second and third reading of the motion they had been considering and then proceeded with the Bills No. 11 and 15.

The members of the House the PRs who were obviously intoxicated with their victory in voting for Option 2, sincerely believed that the House had at last became united, and they wished that the listening public to the debate which was broadcast live could sense the unity in the House. Both 'Akilisi Pohiva and 'Isileli Pulu did not think there was any need to debate over the Bills, they expressed their whole hearted trust on the Minister of Justice to draft good bills. The Speaker called for votes and the two Bills to Amend the Constitution of Tonga and to establish a Boundary Commission were passed. The vote for a Bill to Amend the Constitution was carried 25-0 in its second reading and 23-0 in its third reading. The Bill for the establishment of the Boundary Commission was carried with 23-0 in its second reading and 22-0 in its third reading.

But really, it was simply a case of the PRs 'passing the buck' and denying the people their right to participate in the structuring of a new political system for Tonga.

Also swept under the table in the rush to go home was the long-awaited Final Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Sinking of the Motor Vessel (MV) Princess Ashika, which was not tabled into the house before it closed; and by that excuse is still being officially withheld from the public.

The Ashika Final Report, meanwhile, has been unofficially distributed on the Internet.

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