Despite Democracy, Tongan Politics In The Doldrums

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By Pesi Fonua

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Dec. 31, 2015) –A year after Tonga’s second democratically elected government came into power at the end of December 2014, Tongan politics is stuck in the doldrums.

The repetition by the Prime Minister Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva that his government has the will to "take action" guided by the high moral principles of "good leadership, rule of law - justice for all and the fair distribution of national wealth," so far, are just hot air. The difference between what has been said and what has happened, speaks for itself.

Looking back at some of the events over the past 12 months, one thing has become clear - that the Prime Minister and his government are not singing in tune. Therefore, an enormous amount of money and time has been spent in trying to correct errors and misunderstandings, when the Prime Minister said one thing while his government said or did something else.

The year started off with a big fizz when in February 2015 it was made known in parliament that the Ministry of Tourism had to pay the representatives of Forbes Magazine US$130,000 for a four pages advertorial in a 2015 Investment Guide – a special issue that was published at the end of June. The PM told parliament that 400 copies of the magazines were to be distributed in Tonga during the Coronation of King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u.

Well, no copies of Forbes were seen circulating in Nuku’alofa during the Coronation celebration on 4 July, and the fact that Tonga invested US$130,000 on a half a page interview of the Prime Minister with the hope of attracting foreign investments to Tonga became a touchy issue, while the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Finance were blaming each other for who was responsible for organising the interview. The Ministry of Finance claimed that they only knew about the advertorial when they were given a very large bill to pay.

United Nations

While the dispute over who was responsible for the Forbes "paid interview" was still hot in the air, a few weeks later on 9 March 2015 Hon. ‘Akilisi told parliament that Cabinet had gone ahead and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) - one of the oldest and most widely-signed UN conventions. On 10 March 2015, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon. Fe’ao Vakata informed the UN in New York that the Tonga government had ratified CEDAW.

What followed were demonstrations by various groups opposing Tonga’s ratification of the convention with the largest protest march led by church leaders to the Palace.

However, for Tonga to ratify an International Convention, according to government's legal experts, it had to be carried out by HM in Council and not by the Prime Minister in Cabinet or by parliament.

After the PM was challenged in Parliament, Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva appeared to change his mind on women's rights and retorted that government would withdraw its ratification of CEDAW, "we will write a letter," he said.

The Prime Minister’s working relationship with the UN also became a matter of great concern during the year. The Prime Minister is also Tonga’s Minister of Education, and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. When he made his maiden speech at the UN on 29 September 2015, his speech was different to the copy of his speech that he had earlier tabled with the UN. His outspoken comment on West Papua was not in the original copy of his speech.

Leaders meeting

The latest sign that the PM is out of sync with his government was his failure to attend the COP21 leaders meeting in Paris - without a doubt, the most important gathering of world leaders this century, in their endeavour to address devastating climate change. There is a belief that the human race could find a solution to climate change if they could work together and come to terms with the reality that they are responsible for the destructive climate changes that are taking place and affecting us all.

While 195 world and Pacific islands leaders gathered in Paris to address this major problem that the human race is facing, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the Prime Minister of Tonga, Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva, could not go to Paris because of his health problems. It was said that a few days before the Tongan government delegation departed for Paris, the PM had been in Auckland for a health check-up.

Later, Hon ‘Akilisi rejected the claim by his office, that he could not attend COP21 because of health problems, it was just that he regarded international meetings as a waste of time when he had a lot of work to do in Tonga.

Cabinet ministers

In early December the Prime Minister called a lengthy press conference at the Fa’onelua Convention Centre to announce his decision on the fate of one of his Cabinet Ministers, Hon. ‘Etuate Lavulavu, who had eluded impeachment for alleged corruption.

The Prime Minister hinted that there were problems within his Cabinet, and he went on to say to they were re-examining the MOU of members of the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands (DPFI) and a Code of Conduct for Cabinet Ministers.

The 12 members of the Tongan Cabinet are made up of six members of the DPFI, including the Prime Minister, who formed the government with six non-party MPs, including one Nobles’ representative.

So as we are entering the New Year 2016 our government is obviously preoccupied with trying to remain in power, but meanwhile their favourite saying - "good leadership, rule of law - justice for all and the fair distribution of national wealth," remains a meaningless wail into the open sea.

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