By the River of Babaylon

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Melino Maka.

Overnight Dear Leader seemed to have developed a headache.  One minute he was in Tonga building the river of Babylon on a swampland reclaimed by toxic rubbish like asbestos.  The next he was in New Zealand wailing cry me a river.

In Auckland on Monday 15th May, Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva gave a press release.  He stressed his government had cancelled the Pacific Games scheduled in Tonga for 2019.

He was wrong.  The Pohiva regime hadn’t cancelled the games and had no authority to stop the event from going ahead as planned.

What the Prime Minister should’ve said is that his government had withdrawn from a 2012 tripartite agreement with the Pacific Games Council and the Pacific Games Organising Committee to co-host the 2019 Pacific Games in Tonga.

At Monday’s announcement, his government hadn’t done the paper work by officially notifying the council and the committee of cabinet’s resolution.  And although their decision was made on Friday 12th May, media reports didn’t verify if Dear Leader was actually at the cabinet meeting.

Calling the shots from Auckland looked mighty strange.  There were critical questions that escaped asking.  Was he undergoing medical treatment?  Why was he overseas?

Prime Minister Pohiva may have been able to exit the contract to co-host the games.  But in a Radio New Zealand interview, Andrew Minogue, the CEO for the Pacific Games Council, made it known that the Tongan government had breached their agreement by not following the correct process for the “termination and suspension clauses.”

And it was this omission of fact in the flurry of Government of Tonga press statements that ensued, which led the public up the garden path to a small island of political confusion.

Construction site for Prime Minister Pohiva’s beautification project of a river, golf course, recreation centre at Popua. Photograph: Melino Maka.

Dear Leader’s theatrical outburst got a lot of media coverage.  The journalism lens should really have stayed pointed at the river, recreation centre, and golf course, which he’d left unfinished at a place called Popua on Tonga’s main island.

It was said to have destroyed a thousand year old national heritage site of pigeon snares built by Kings of old.

‘Akilisi Pohiva had engineered a mammoth beautification project.  But alas, he was not an engineer and that caused many problems.

His friend was helping to bury him under a litany of legal requirements he appeared to have ignored.  Did an environmental impact assessment consider how the heritage site would be preserved under the construction?  No one in cabinet uttered a word, not even the environment minister.

Pohiva’s building assistant?  ‘Etuate Lavulavu, Dear Leader’s ex-Minister for Infrastructure found guilty in the Supreme Court 2016 of three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery.

Like Snow White’s seven dwarfs, Dear Leader whistled while he worked on the Popua project with “no plan” and “no working committee.”

Overconfidently ‘Akilisi Pohiva had disclosed at a legendary press conference held at the Popua project site: “if you ask me if there is a plan, I will tell you, no plan was written down.”

Matangi Tonga Online was quick to publish a detailed English translation of Pohiva’s presser with a one-minute audio clip to embellish the astonishing performance.

Veteran journalist, Kalafi Moala. Photograph: Agence France-Presse.

But in the who’s who of the media zoo scrambling for a scoop of zoo poop to publish, there was a lone voice of resistance.  Veteran journalist Kalafi Moala called on Tonga’s journalists to boycott the government pressers.

Interviewing for the Nuku’alofa Times, Moala tried to see the populist position of letting Dear Leader “jerk us around” with “his crazy stories.”  When push came to shove, however, he declined to play a media role in the Minions, a cartoon film about yellow creatures who serve the worst of the world’s despots.

Years of working as an independent journalist had taught him a rule of good sense reporting.  If it looks like poop, it may not be a newsworthy scoop of public interest.

Minions. Photograph: Timfly.

 

 

The obvious fact, which journalists didn’t take note of, was that Dear Leader’s outlandish stories had the power to undermine the integrity of news reporting by diverting journalists away from the truth about questionable government activities carried out in the country’s name.

Thus, Moala prodded for public opinion on the query: could state control defeat a media gullible enough to cover “craziness” as credible news?  Yes was the correct answer he looked for.

Moala’s burden was that Tongan politics had descended into the depths of mad-capped media stories and sensationalised news.  He’d had it with watching his country’s democracy disintegrate into warring “personalities” and unscrupulous politicking.

Dear Leader’s media antics side-tracked the public into political spectator sport.  Power battles that the Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva set-up and staged against the former Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele had destabilised a functional democracy.

 

The development of Pacific democracy, as we’ve seen in Tonga, has often been largely based on personalities – rather than principles, values, and practices that apply to everyone equally, and are sustainable from one culture to another, and from one generation to another.

Kalafi Moala

Tevita Tupou, President of TASNOC. Photograph: Nuku’alofa Times.

Tevita Tupou, President of the Tonga Association of Sport and National Olympic Committee (TASMOC), had put Moala’s views in context.  Criticising Pohiva for obstructing the work of the Pacific Games Organising Committee, he wrote a disapproving letter to Parliament’s Speaker dated January 27th, 2017.  He wanted his letter read in the House and broadcasted to the public.

The straightforward reason was the people needed to know that under the Pacific Games Organization Act 2013 the statutory authority who “may do all things necessary to prepare for, manage and conduct the Games” was the “Organizing Committee” chaired by Feleti Sevele.  It was not the Prime Minister and cabinet, as Pohiva had mistakenly assumed.

 

One of the most frustrating obstacles to the preparations for the Games is the continual attempts by the Prime Minister to interfere with the organization of sport that is within the jurisdictions of the Organizing Committee, TASANOC and the Pacific Games Council which the Government of Tonga has committed by agreements to support.

Tevita Tupou

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: TNews.

Tupou contended that despite Pohiva’s sermonising about “good governance, integrity, and the rule of law” being cornerstones of “public leadership,” the Prime Minister did the complete opposite.

 

He [‘Akilisi Pohiva] constantly preaches upholding good governance, integrity and public leadership to the Organizing Committee, TASANOC and the authority and facilities committee but he does the very opposite in his dealings with these sports organizations, and in particular, the Organizing Committee.

Tevita Tupou

 

[T]he first principle in upholding good governance, integrity and leadership in Government is to respect and abide by the Rule of Law which the Prime Minister has not done.

Tevita Tupou

 

On Tuesday 16th May, the day after Pohiva announced his government had axed the Pacific Games, Radio New Zealand journalist Koro Vaka’uta tweeted a news headline @The_KorOcle: “Tonga shocks region with announcement of games withdrawal.”

The attention grabbing one-liner didn’t accurately depict the context in which political tensions over the games had emerged.  Rather, it was a convenient media pitch to popularise the story.

The truth was, shock politics was Dear Leader’s brand.  Pohiva’s regime made shock their signature tactic for governing the country.

Halfway through their four-year term, it had became normal for Tongans to feel flabbergasted at the questionable way in which the Pohiva administration went about their business.

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands and Dr ‘Aisake Eke, People’s Representative for Tongatapu Constituency 5. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

In Tongan political life, opposition MPs, state officials, reporters, and researchers with a heightened awareness of ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s leadership tactics, did not buy for a minute that his government withdrew their support for co-hosting the Pacific Games because of Tonga’s struggling economy.

A personal gripe was fuelling the Pacific Games fire.  Even Pohiva’s former finance minister Dr ‘Aisake Eke immediately saw through the smoke screen.

 

[There’s] another element and I guess that element might have been the basis of the decision, and they probably used financial situations for being the scapegoat.

‘Aisake Eke

Tonga’s former Prime Minister from 2006 to 2011, Dr Feleti Sevele.

What was “that element” of conflict Eke referred to?  Pohiva had beef with Sevele.  And the fact he withdrew his government from co-hosting the games, but hung on to building a hazardous golf course that he was advised not to construct, put him in a fishy position.

Andrew Minogue, Pacific Games Council CEO, spelled out this point to Radio New Zealand’s Vinnie Wylie.

 

With the golf course we’ve made it known right from the beginning that the existing course, which is I think a nine hole course, would be suitable.  We’ve run Pacific Games or Mini Games competitions on nine hole courses before.  We’ve not asked for a new golf course and we’ve said that many times through the authorities in Tonga.

Andrew Minogue

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands and Dr ‘Aisake Eke, People’s Representative for Tongatapu Constituency 5. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

On Thursday May 18th, Noble MP Fusitu’a tweeted a public message at @LordFusitua.

 

Anticorruption committee to vet the purported Casino deal
#NationalConcerns #GoodGovernance
#Transparency Anticorruption
#NationBuilding

Lord Fusitu’a

 

Suddenly, the Tongan parliament’s standing committee on anti-corruption, which Fusitu’a chaired, was timely.  The same process used to determine if Pohiva’s government had breached the law by approving the proposed casino in Tonga, was relevant to resolving the golf course debacle.

Because here’s the thing.  Was the Prime Minister’s Popua project – a river, recreation centre, and golf course – compliant with the Environment Management Act 2010?

How did the public know, for sure, that the “environment is not thereby being adversely impacted on” from constructing a golf course and a river on an ancient heritage site of one-thousand year old pigeon traps? 

Surely the anti-corruption committee provided a mechanism for ascertaining whether the golf course was outside the law.

The overarching issue at stake for the country?  Tonga’s democracy under the Pohiva regime was submerged in political crisis.

Kalafi Moala made the crux of that calamity plain-as-day to the Chinese, Australian, and New Zealand governments who’d stuck with bankrolling the Pacific Games, despite Pohiva’s government withdrawal as co-hosts.

 

If democracy is to thrive in Tonga, it requires teamwork by a skilled, experienced and competent cabinet and public service.

Kalafi Moala

 

Our thoughts?  “A skilled, experienced and competent cabinet” required for “democracy to thrive” has disappeared in Tonga.

Which is why the opposition MPs – nobles and people’s representatives alike – are the necessary component for ensuring the parliamentary committees are functional, if the government is not.

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 is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland and the publisher of the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net

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