When adults won’t stand up for kids rights

Sefita Hao’uli, Manager of Tongan Government seasonal workers to New Zealand’s recognised seasonal employer (RSE) programme. Photograph: Tonga Broadcasting Commission.

It’s no wonder Sefita Hao’uli looked uncomfortable interviewing for Barbara Dreaver on New Zealand Television One News, Thursday June 15th.  His darting eyes appeared to be covering up a soiled, sullied secret.

Why had the Government of Tonga softened the fact their seasonal workers supplied 15 year old girls in Kerikeri with alcohol and marijuana and paid them for sex?  15 is under the legal age to have sex in New Zealand.

Hao’uli had the unpleasant job of fronting up to media for his boss in Tonga, ‘Ana Bing Fonua, CEO of Internal Affairs.  He managed the Tongan workers in New Zealand on the recognised seasonal employer (RSE) programme.

 

We understood later on that the girls were underage but it wasn’t known at the time.

Sefita Hao’uli

 

Straight question: the government knew the girls were under the legal age of consent?  Hao’uli swerved in answering on camera, indicating we understood after the fact.

Four months ago in February, Kaniva New Zealand broke the story.  Kalino Latu framed the plot, leaving readers with a sobering question.  Were eight Tongan fruit pickers sent home because of sex abuse allegations?

 

A Tongan mother’s claim that her 15 years-old was sexually abused in Kerikeri has come after eight Tongan fruit pickers were sent home last Friday [February 3rd].

Kalino Latu

 

In Hao’uli’s sixteen second soundbite crammed in a two and a half minute newscast, what action did the Tongan government take to protect the rights of the victims who were minors?  He should have continued his story.

The official line viewers got was that a code of conduct had been put in place prohibiting, but not outlawing alcohol.  Did alcohol trigger sex offending?  No.  It was a diversion from talking about a serious sex crime.

Did the code of conduct state explicitly workers who broke the law in New Zealand would be immediately reported to the police?  There was something mighty strange about a government operating a labour mobility scheme without a code of conduct as part of the contractual arrangement.

An admission surfaced in Hao’uli’s television interview: “we understood later on that the girls were underage.”  His utterance implied Tonga’s government knew what was going on with workers paying girls for sex.

Their story was they didn’t realise the girls were underage, and therefore, they didn’t know illegal sex had occurred until after the workers were repatriated.  But that didn’t let them off the hook from pursuing a lawful course of action as the state.

Because here’s the thing: suddenly the Tongan government spewed up a putrid mess in New Zealand that would sicken many a parent.

CEO of Tonga Internal Affairs ‘Ana Bing Fonua visiting seasonal workers in New Zealand. Photograph: Kaniva New Zealand.

Grave question: did Prime Minister Pohiva’s administration breach the law in both countries, New Zealand and Tonga by orchestrating a political cover up?

The bureaucracy administering the RSE programme flew seasonal workers accused of sex offending back to Tonga in early February.  They looked to be deliberately evading justice by way of a New Zealand police investigation, questioning, and charges.

Then there were the legal obligations in Tonga.  If police in New Zealand gathered sufficient evidence to press charges, was the Tongan government required by law to extradite the workers to stand trial?

In New Zealand, the official definition of statutory rape is that the age of consent for sex is 16 years old.  15 year old girls cannot consent to sex with men.  It falls under the Crimes Act 1961 and amounts to ten years maximum behind bars if proven guilty in a court of law.

But there’s a public conversation Tongans at home and in New Zealand ought to be having about double standards.  Specifically, how we avoid discussing culpability when it comes to adult men sex offending against young girls.

A God-fearing Christian nation of firm believers in biblical canon, why won’t adults stand up for the rights of 15 year old girls sexually abused by Tongan men on a seasonal work programme in New Zealand?

Pohiva’s Government seated in the Tongan Parliament. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

We’re speaking up on rape culture, a term that suggests rape is so widespread in Tongan society, it’s become normalised by gender and power.

The victims of rape – in this case girls – are blamed, shamed, shunned, and stigmatised as social outcasts, which highlights power is disproportionate and imbalanced.

Why did Pohiva’s police minister, his son-in-law Mateni Tapueluelu, not investigate the allegations?  By not doing so, victims were denied equal rights before the law.

One of the girls unburdened to Barbara Dreaver for TV One News.

 

We grew up with not having anything, so when money came in, we just went there.  We’re embarrassed and ashamed of what we’ve done.  Everyone’s ashamed of what we’ve done because they put the blame on us.

Female victim

 

It was as if Tongans purposely looked the other way.  Their rationale?  People are dependent on the RSE programme for an income.  Tonga is dependent on the remittances of RSE workers.

The truth?  Tongans seem more concerned the number of workers to New Zealand might be reduced if the sex crime allegations do not go away.  And if Tongans pride themselves on being a Christian country of church-goers, then the cover up way of thinking is hypocritical.

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Lord Fusitu’a.

 

 

Who is holding the adult men accused of statutory rape against underage girls accountable?  Definitely not the Pohiva government.  Count them out.

Lord Fusitu’a for the noble MPs in opposition wasn’t going to let it go.  Talking candidly with Barbara Dreaver he said if the “allegations are correct, charges must be laid.”  No cover up.  No forgoing the law.

 

If these allegations are correct, then as we said, charges must be laid, and if a cover up was in place, then there must be a fairly serious investigation into what occurred.

Lord Fusitu’a

 

On Tuesday June 20th for the noble MPs in opposition, Fusitu’a raised RSE workers and sex abuse claims in the Tongan parliament.  Their strategy was to hold the Pohiva government to account so they could not renege on the law.

Which raises the question of what the victims and their families want in terms of seeking justice?  One Tongan mother stood valiantly by her daughter.

 

I want this raised with the highest authorities the men who have done this terrible thing to my daughter are dealt with by the appropriate law.

Victim’s mother

 

What is the appropriate law?  In a nutshell, here’s transnational crime across Tonga and New Zealand.  The scope of the crime is secondary to the fact that statutory rape was alleged to have been committed in New Zealand by Tongan citizens removed from the country by their government before a police investigation and charges could be laid.

What did the heads of our respective governments, Tonga and New Zealand, have to say for themselves on the contentious issue of RSE workers and sex offending?

‘Akilisi Pohiva and Bill English sat awkwardly in a joint press conference in Nuku’alofa on Friday 16th June.

Neither Prime Minister would name sex crime allegations, fobbing it off as “bad behaviour” that could be fixed by “the selection process” of getting workers with good behaviour.

 

I made it clear to him [Bill English] that we’ll continue to make sure that the selection process from this end is done properly.

‘Akilisi Pohiva

 

We all want to make sure that New Zealanders don’t feel threatened by bad behaviour from RSE workers.  Look everyone wants the right thing to happen here.

Bill English

Tonga Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva and New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English. Photograph: Matangi Tonga.

Our thoughts?  Raise your game New Zealand government.  In an election year we expect New Zealand Aid to be focused on showing New Zealand voters their taxes are assisting Pacific development.

But the gravity for Tongan nationals means that this is not the time to give Pohiva’s government a hospital pass to disregard the rule of law in Tonga and New Zealand.

Tonga is a failed state under ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s regime.  Democracy is so fragile a safety valve that may avert a lawless state is if New Zealand and Australia pressure his government to abide by the laws of the land.

The 2018 election to usher in a new government could not happen fast enough for Tongans at home and overseas.  God help our country in political and moral crisis.

Authors

Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka chairs the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, New Zealand and publishes the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net.

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