KEY ISSUE UNSETTLED AS TONGA ASSEMBLY ADJOURNS

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No official approval of new constituencies

By Pesi Fonua NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, May 7, 2010) - If there was any doubt over the fact that the Tongan Legislative Assembly did not properly approve the boundaries of the 17 constituencies and the number of voters per constituency before it closed its 2009 session on the evening of April 20, then the digital copies of the Minutes of proceedings in the House on April 19-20 clearly show that two different motions relating to the boundaries of constituencies were left hanging in mid-air when the House officially closed its 2009 session on the evening of April 20.

Noble Tangipa's motion of April 19 for the House to adopt Option 2 that was recommended by the Royal Boundaries Commission had only its first reading and was not given any further readings.

Prime Minister Dr. Feleti Sevele's motion of April 20 for the House to adopt Option 2 including amendments that had been presented by government in their alternative Option, was voted on only once in the Legislature.

Neither motion had any further readings because the house then proceeded and in a flash passed the Bill to Amend the Constitution and a Bill to Establish a Boundary Commission, without any debate. The drafting and the details of the Bills were simply left for the Minister of Justice and Cabinet to decide.

So the motions of Noble Tangipa and the Prime Minister Dr. Feleti Sevele were left hanging in mid-air, both having had only one reading each, when the House closed on the night of April 20.

That long last day of the session on April 20 was an odd one. On the request of the Deputy Prime Minister, nurses were waiting to give members their flu shots at lunchtime.

It was an important day when members had to decide on constitutional change.

The day before, April 19, the atmosphere in the House had been very intense when some of the members who voted for Tangipa's motion decided to walk out in protest over the Speaker's decision to defer a second reading.

They had voted 13-12 on the first reading in the whole house committee of the motion by the Niuas Nobles' Representative Noble Tangipa, for the House to adopt Option 2 that was recommended by the Royal Boundaries Commission. But when the Speaker was about to call for a second reading of the same motion there was fierce opposition from Cabinet Ministers, and so a further reading of the motion was deferred to allow government to present their Alternative Option on constituencies boundaries the following day.

Members who voted for Option 2 on April 19 were: People's Reps 'Akilisi Pohiva, 'Isileli Pulu, Clive Edwards, 'Etuate Lavulavu, 'Uliti Uata, Sunia Fili, and Sione Feingatau 'Iloa, and the Nobles Tangipa, Fulivai, Vaha'i, Fakafanua, Fielakepa and Tu'ilakepa.

Against Option 2 were: the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister-(the Minister of Health) and the Ministers of Education, Finance, Works, Revenue, Tourism, Communications and Information, Justice, Youth and Sports, and the Governors of Vava'u and Ha'apai.

The Speaker who voted for Option 2, admitted that he had been put in a difficult position, because there was no good reason for him to postpone voting on Tangipa's motion until the following day, and the procedure, of course, required a second reading of the motion, and possibly a third reading. It has been a practice in the House that an important issue has always been given a third reading.

That's when some of the members who had just voted for Tangipa's motion decided to walk out in protest.

The Cabinet Ministers then jumped on the opportunity and pointed out to the Speaker that the House could not vote because it would be unfair for them to vote while some of the members were out in protest.

So the Speaker postponed the vote on Tangipa's motion until the following day, April 20.

In the morning the pressure was on for the House to agree on three important items, the boundaries of 17 constituencies and the number of votes per constituency, and the two bills.

Cabinet tabled their alternative Option for dividing up the country into constituencies. The basis of their alternative Option was for equal value of votes throughout the 17 constituencies.

Prolonged speeches, mainly by People's Representatives and Noble's Representatives against the government's alternative proposition for boundaries and the number of votes per constituency were based on their opposition to the idea of having equal value of votes and the topping up of votes of one constituency from another constituency. The issue was whether to make voting in the next election more democratic or not.

Under the Cabinet's alternative option Tongatapu was still divided into 10 Constituencies but they were given names, so instead of just Tongatapu 1 to 10, there were Kolomotu'a, Kolofo'ou, Fasi-Ma'ufanga, Houmakelikao, Hihifo, Houma, Tofoa-Tokomololo, Vaini, Tatakamotonga and Lapaha.

'Eua was topped up with voters from Niuafo'ou to make 'Eua-Niuafo'ou. There were Ha'apai Lifuka and Ha'apai Fangaloto Popua.

Vava'u was divided into three constituencies, Vava'u Hahake; Neiafu Vava'u and Vava'u Hihifo with no top-ups. Niuatoputapu was topped up from Tongatapu to make Niuatoputapu-Tongatapu.

Cabinet Ministers stressed that their option was more democratic because votes would then have equal value throughout the 17 constituencies.

But the others were dead against the idea of topping up votes from other constituencies. They insisted that the geographical division should remain in the outer islands of the Niuas, Ha'apai and 'Eua and they should have their own representatives elected by the people of those areas.

People's Representative 'Akilisi Pohiva insisted that boundaries for constituencies should be the same as boundaries for the election of District Officers, and people who do not live in a district should vote in a Block Voting system. He said that the whole of Tonga had been divided into seven districts but the government was proposing 17 constituencies and with such a division, the district officer would have more influence than a People's Representative.

The Minister for Revenue Collection, pleaded with the PR not to go back and try to alter the number of constituencies, which the House had already agreed on, to elect 17 People's Representatives (PR).

The Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Viliami Tangi asked that Cabinet Members should be given the opportunity to explain their Alternative Option rather than talking about issues that were not in their alternative option.

The debate, although it became loud, was not getting anywhere. There was a sense of frustration that after they agreed that there should be Political Reform they had not got to a stage where they might implement such a change.

It was nearly lunchtime and members were well entrenched in their views. Then in the thick of it, the Chairman called for a halt in the debate. He told members that the Minister of Health Dr. Tangi wanted to give them an inoculation against influenza.

The Minister of Health said that nurses were waiting in the conference room ready to give members a shot in the arm with the latest vaccine against the global influenza epidemic known as H1N1 Influenza virus. He said that one shot on the arm would protect a person against the influenza for a year.

Noble Lasike wanted to know if there were any side effects, and the Minister reassured the House that there were no side effects.

The Speaker called on members to proceed to the conference room.

After lunch things appeared to have calmed down, and Cabinet Ministers, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Viliami Tangi were able to explain in detail the Alternative Option of government with fewer interruptions. The government's Alternative Option is based on equal value of votes and democracy.

Clive Edwards expressed his appreciation of the government intention, but believed there should be allowance for special cases, and with regards to the allocation of PRs to remote areas with fewer population, he believed they were special cases.

Noble Tangipa was very forceful with his support of Clive's view of Special Cases.

It was not until very late in the afternoon that 'Akilisi Pohiva spoke. He said that before they broke for lunch he was talking and he said he thought he would be given the first chance to speak when the House reconvened.

He also gave his full support of Clive's Special Cases when it comes to democracy. He said that government presented two points with their Alternative Option, "they are the Equal Value of Votes and Democracy . . . I want to talk about democracy." He said that his definition of democracy was similar to that of the United Nations, which he said had been printed and distributed world-wide. "Under Clause 21 - the will of the people is the authority of Government."

He recalled an interview of the King in the Tonga Chronicle where he said that the downfall of many world leaders was that they committed whole-heartedly to their political ideology and forgot to listen to the voice of the people. He claimed that 80 percent of the people of Tonga supported Option 2. He suggested that after his speech they should vote.

The Speaker closed the House until 6pm.

When the House reconvened at 6pm members were in high spirits. The Prime Minister requested the Chairman for a few minutes to make a short speech. He expressed his concern over false information that was circulating which claimed that government was delaying the political reform. He was concerned that such false information could stop the flow of financial assistance to Tonga.

He then moved a motion that Cabinet would respect the vote of the majority of the Committee 13-12 in favour of Option 2. He said that the two Niuas would have one PR, 'Eua would have one PR and Ha'apai would have two PRs. As the Prime Minister read out these figures, members were very excited and were clapping and cheering.

The Prime Minister said that Vava'u, which had already been divided into three constituencies with an equal number of voters would have three PRs, and Tongatapu with 10 constituencies with equal number of voters would have 10 PRs.

He also emphasized that the voting system would remain as single Member Constituency and First Past the Post.

The Chairman of the Whole House Committee thanked the PM respecting the vote of the majority of the House and for reducing the tension in the House.

The Committee was dissolved into Legislature, and the Speaker asked the Prime Minister to further clarify his motion before they confirmed it with votes.

The Prime Minister stressed that the electoral system for the whole of Tonga would be 'First Past the Post' and the motion was for the adoption of Option 2 with the amendment that had been presented by the government to the House, which was for Vava'u to be divided into three constituencies, Vava'u Hahake, Neiafu, Vava'u and Vava'u Hihifo. Each constituency would have 5,494 voters.

Ha'apai would be divided into two constituencies, Ha'apai Lifuka, and Ha'apai Fangaloto Popua, and each constituency would have 5494 voters.

Tongatapu would be divided into 10 constituencies, Kolomotu'a with 6514 voters; Kolofo'ou, 6270; Fasi-Ma'ufanga, 6123; Houmakelikao, 6033; Hihifo, 6675; Houma, 5983; Tofoa/Tokomololo, 6042; vaini, 6567; Tatakamotonga, 6714; and Lapaha, 6581.

The Speaker called for votes in Legislature of the motion of the Prime Minister for the house to pass Option 2 with the amendment that had been related by the Prime Minister.

The first reading was carried 25-0. For it were 'Akilisi Pohiva, 'Isileli Pulu, Clive Edwards, 'Etuate Lavulavu, 'Uliti Uata, Sunia Fili, Sione Feingatau 'Iloa, the Minister of Revenue, Minister of Tourism, Minister of Education, Minister of Finance, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Youth and Sports, Minister of Work, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Information, Minister of Environment, Minister of Justice, the Governor of Ha'apai, Noble Tangipa, Noble Tu'iha'ateiho, Noble Vaha'I, Noble Fielakepa and Noble Lasike.

The Prime Minister's alternative motion did not have a second and a third reading.

At the same time Noble Tangipa's motion is alive out there somewhere, so presumably the two motions are still halfway through the parliamentary process, and that means that we don't know what the boundaries for the proposed 17 constituencies are.

Meanwhile, when it passed the two bills, the House has given the Cabinet the right to change the constitution and to set the boundaries.

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