Change the Billboards

Andrew Little (right), replaced as the NZ Labour Party leader by deputy leader, Jacinda Ardern (left). Photograph: Tim Murphy, Newsroom.

“How much will it cost to change NZ Labour billboards?”  Richard Pamatatau tweeted about the New Zealand Labour Party caucus ousting Andrew Little as their leader for deputy leader, Jacinda Ardern. 

It happened overnight.  Monday 31 July, Little signalled to the public that it was over for him.  Tuesday 1 August, gone by morning tea.  At a 10 am presser, he resigned before being challenged by Ardern for the leadership.

For 20 years, Television New Zealand One News had run a Colmar Brunton poll predicting political parties and public popularity.  The poll didn’t sing Little’s praises for an incoming Prime Minister.

As the main opposition party, Labour had 22% of the New Zealand vote.  With not nearly enough to win outright, caucus elected to swiftly remove Andrew Little before the September 23rd election got any closer.

Was it a smart decision?  Not entirely.  Dissent tactics and bringing in a new leader five weeks out from the election is serious political gambling and highly addictive.

Labour’s shown their addiction with 6 leaders fronting the party in 10 years.  They haven’t won an election since Helen Clark left office in 2008.  Ever since, New Zealanders have found it perplexing keeping up with who’s the new leader and why the last one got shafted.

Whether Pamatatau was serious or satirical on the cost of changing Labour’s campaign billboards isn’t what we’re drawing attention to.  Rather, this former Radio New Zealand correspondent on the Pacific, who’d covered Tonga’s 2010 election, gestured to a volatile political climate.

In New Zealand, public hype escalated over changing the government from a National right-wing regime – which had been in power for three terms – to a leftist coalition between Labour and the Greens.  Tensions had reached crisis point.

Government Ministers (front row) and Noble MPs (second row) at the 2017 opening of the Tongan parliament. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Let’s be honest: the whole change the government mania is visible in Tonga’s frantic panicky predicament, consuming and fracturing the nation.

Time to step back from desperate campaigning on minor matters that won’t solve Tonga’s biggest problem – a broke economy and no jobs.

Critically reflecting on the circumstances cultivating unpredictable behaviour and instability, here’s the question.  How have impulsive last minute tactics played out this year?

In February, media framed the call for a change of leadership.  The story began with 7 noble MPs – minus Lord Ma’afu, government’s lands minister and Lord Tu’ivakano, parliament’s speaker.  Along with the minority support of 3 people’s MPs, they staged a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva.  It failed, and it should have been the end of the news story.

But an unpleasant aftertaste hung around; and that was, a hasty attempt at replacing the Prime Minister with a substitute leader and government wasn’t carefully thought out.  The consequences of failing weren’t discussed by MPs voting to overthrow Pohiva.

That’s exactly what needed to be weighed up: if there’s no hard evidence and the vote fails, how will it affect voters, parliament’s core work, and chances of changing the government at the 2018 election?

Question: What’s the risk of pursuing a half-baked idea?  Answer: A fall of biblical proportions.

See that’s the thing about rash decisions made at a whim and based on a poll, or a perception of public opinion garnered from the media and social media.  It can easily end in political failure and cost more than a new set of billboards.

The cost is the public’s trust and confidence that decisions and policies are sound, or that the politicians impetuously pushing to topple the leadership have a steady approach and a sustainable plan to govern.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Tagata Pasifika.

Love or loathe ‘Akilisi Pohiva, one’s opinion of the man doesn’t change the fact he’s a seasoned politician of 30 years who’s managed to out manoeuvre and outlast his adversaries.  For the larger part, he’s been the leader of the people’s opposition.

This is where he made his name as a leftist in the most conservative Pacific parliament.  The establishment of 9 nobles representatives are, up until this very day, extremely resistant to Tonga progressing towards a fully elected parliament of 26 people’s representatives.

And it’s this recurring tension – that Pohiva sees the nobles’ seats should be abolished or reduced, or alternatively, that the nobles get voted in by the public not their peers – which stirs deep-seated hostility and enmity in Tongan politics.

What has experience lent Pohiva in his prime ministership?  He’s a resilient opponent no matter what side of the House he’s leading from, the opposition or the government.  Possibly if ‘Akilisi Pohiva took up tweeting like US President Donald Trump, he could hashtag #1PeoplesRepTonga and trend #1 for Pacific news.

That’s a feat only he can brag about – to have led from both sides.  Because here’s the thing: Pohiva’s never been worried he might lose the political leadership.  He had a mandate from his electorate and parliament to govern, and he wasn’t psyched-out by a vote of no hope of getting rid of him.

After 30 years in politics, why would he cower to the opposition?  The Noble MPs misapprehended the first rule of government.  A mandate to govern is what it is.  Even a wobbly administration like President Trump in the White House, will still go about governing the country despite impeachment threats.

Arguing that Pohiva only won a certain percentage of constituency votes for Tongatapu #1 is irrelevant to upholding the political mandate in a democracy.  In his electorate, he got majority support at the ballot box; end of petty-minded bickering.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Television Tonga News.



Our prod is that Pohiva’s real embarrassment has never been thrashed out in politics or the media.  Put simply, he hasn’t done a thing to overhaul Tonga’s social and economic hierarchy and reduce class and wealth disparities by making the national strategic development plan a left-wing policy document.

His cabinet came up with an identical blueprint of donors dictates and aid dependency from past governments.  Here was a national development plan of neo-liberal economics; the corporate economics of punishing poor countries by dominating trade, exploiting their human and natural resources, and rendering them poorer and deeper in debt.

Bottom line: new social spending on education and health amounts to empty budget promises if the Pohiva administration flatly refuse to rank economic development first.  Jobs, income, and trade underpin a country’s standard of living, which in turn, bankrolls social development.  Tonga can’t live on aid.

And this is what criticism really ought to do – question state policy and public benefit.  Who really benefits from development – the aid donor or the recipient, the foreign investor or the local business, the government or the people, the elites and the middle class or the working class and the poor?

Pohiva’s political identity trouble of pretending he’s socially left, but in reality, practising economically right strategies, began in 2014 when he first started.  The moment he entered the Prime Minister’s office, Democratic Party policies he promised voters he’d make good on were put aside.

As Tonga’s Prime Minister, he’s taken no direct action on poverty elimination by creating employment for vulnerable communities.  There’s no hope for small-scale farmers to get agricultural trade from this government.

In fact, Matangi Tonga reported inflation has risen 10% in a year because Pohiva’s “new customs duty and excise tax” hiked up the price of basic needs for ordinary Tongan families – food and electricity.

We’re compelled to ask, if this is a coalition government of genuine leftists and moderates, why aren’t ministers united on reducing poverty by getting the working class, the underclass, women, and youth into jobs to raise living standards?  What’s their focus every Friday at cabinet meetings?

By the same token, what’s the point of having a parliament of 26 MPs when only 8 of them turn up to work on Monday 31 July, and the House Clerk can’t get a quorum?  Especially when taxpayers are remunerating MPs salaries.

Noble MP Lord Tu’ilakepa. Photograph: David White.

Then again, why turn up in the manner of which Lord Tu’ilakepa conducted himself in the House on Wednesday 2 August.  Kalino Latu for Kaniva New Zealand framed him throwing a noble temper tantrum at the Prime Minister with such bluster, if there was a moral high-ground on which the nobility’s seats were perched, they tumbled off with an almighty thud.

Latu’s pro-government news outlet capitalised on Tu’ilakepa’s one-act play.


Lord Tuilakepa claimed in parliament yesterday that his application for a visa to the United States was declined because the Prime Minister had reported him adversely to the US embassy.  While Hon. Pohiva was speaking Lord Tu’ilakepa interrupted and said he knew something about Pohiva which if revealed would be the end of him.  The noble made personal remarks about the Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, alleging he should quit the premiership because he was terminally ill.

Kalino Latu


Was parliament an appropriate stage for Tu’ilakepa to perform his script?  No.  If the reportage was accurate, the US Embassy may have approached Tonga’s Prime Minister for a recommendation because they had reservations about approving a visa application.  It’s within their embassy jurisdiction to do so.

US Ambassador Judith Cefkin to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu is the state official with whom Tu’ilakepa ought to express his dismay.  That shouldn’t translate into a public conversation broadcasted on Tongan radio so that pro-government media can report it as parliamentary news the very next day.  There’s nothing newsworthy about this.

Worse still, Tu’ilakepa’s punitive slur against Pohiva – “he should quit the premiership because he was terminally ill” – did more harm to the noble MPs plight to retain their 9 seats from abolition, than good.

It went beyond a personal remark that hit below the belt.  It was a statement intended to humiliate and shame, reflecting poorly on the nobility as a class of male landed gentry.  What is the role of the opposition in parliament?  To what extent will the opposition go to remove the government?  In simple terms, how low will MPs go?

Dr Sitiveni Halapua. Photograph: Samoa Planet.

Downplaying Tu’ilakepa’s unsettling recital in parliament was Radio and Television Tonga emphasis on Dr Sitiveni Halapua’s criticism of the Pohiva government.  Was that stage-managed?  Because something didn’t add up evenly.

Halapua’s thoughts?  The government was “not [being] transparent and [were] very inconsistent” with public information about its day-to-day running.  No, too simplistic: a more complex story has unravelled.

A breakdown in the public information flow is noticeable.  However it’s traced to a chaotic, disorderly legislative assembly in which government and the opposition are not disciplined about debating state policy and plans, and legislating bills, while adhering to the House rules.

Side-tracked by change the government fervour, opposition MPs should also be faulted for failing to concentrate on parliament’s core business which persistently disrupts the country’s work from getting done.

And like journalists anywhere in the world, Tonga’s media mirror the political landscape.  Theirs is split in two – pro-government or pro-opposition.

Is this indicative of an “infant democracy [that] will take years for us to be mature,” as Halapua exclaimed on public television?

Yes, it may take a generation for the people’s MPs to stabilise politics and elevate the economy to a position of strength so that a fully elected parliament is preferable and sustainable.

The transition shouldn’t traumatise the public in light that political reform is seven years old.  This is the first coalition government led by Pohiva, a belligerent battler, and controlled by the people’s representatives.  Plus, the noble MPs are fathoming how to function as the opposition.

But it has.  People are disturbed by untrustworthy and unreliable politicians talking it up but delivering zilch.  Our inquiry is what conditions have allowed this to happen?

Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: International Telecommunications Union.

Double dosage of truth?  Siaosi Sovaleni, Pohiva’s Deputy PM, an independent not a Democracy Party minister, looks placed to win the next Prime Minister’s election if he puts his hand up.  He should because it’s not far off, 15 months away in November 2018.

Voters on the general roll deserve to see committed, consistent, competent leaders from the people’s representatives, rise above a tumultuous parliament that transforms into turmoil at every sitting.

This isn’t to overlook opposition people’s MP ‘Aisake Eke as a possible PM contender who may be touted by the nobles in 2018.  Which would be a shame, if he didn’t maintain his independent stand and negotiate his policies with other people’s representatives.

On noting that, there’s a group of people’s MPs who appear to be sure bets to retain their seats in the House.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva at the opening of parliament, 2017. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

The dreadful truth is Tonga’s political economy exists in a small, insular, cut-throat environment where MPs are incessantly up in other people’s business, and rivals believe they’ve got dirt on one another to smear around.  Political behaviour can quickly expose a corrupt pattern of conniving and conspiring.

Really, it’s no national secret the state bureaucracy is an inward-looking fish-bowl containing all too familiar families and faces scheming for power, and in Tonga, the personal is political.  The government hierarchy reproduces bureaucrats at all levels who are political actors either overtly supporting, or covertly undermining, the hand that feeds them.

Given the polarising circumstances, ministerial portfolios are heavily fought for, and so forming a government comes down to horse trading skills.  This means, a leader’s ability to offer MPs jobs in an anticipated cabinet for their vote at the Prime Minister’s election is how a deal is cut.

A process in which MPs negotiate a coalition government on common policies, development priorities, and work competencies just doesn’t happen, period.

In an ideal world, voting behaviour must shift from electing personalities to sizing up the best policies for Tonga at the general election for MPs, and at parliament’s election of the Prime Minister.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva and Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Pohiva and Sovaleni’s government leader and deputy alliance has highlighted what, specifically?  A generation divide in terms of identifying and communicating Tonga’s national interests.  On the political scale they are located in dissimilar eras and age groups.

Pohiva’s roots are socialist, the left in the 80s – almost 40 years ago, although it’s highly questionable what he actually stands for now he’s in government.

Sovaleni is a centrist, a moderate in contemporary politics appealing to the educated and business middle class, and younger voters under thirty, which is Tonga’s largest demographic.

Sovaleni’s policy decisions in environment and communications, particularly selling 49% shares of Tonga Broadcasting Commission to Digicel, aligns with global economics.  That is, the unprofitability of the state has meant governments have to open up the public sector to private sector market competition.

Despite criticism, international banks and the International Monetary Fund recommend two options to developing countries struggling to pay bills and manage budget deficits they can’t afford.  Privatise state assets, or make job redundancies in a burdensome civil service too inefficient to carry the salary costs.

Pohiva and Sovaleni have gelled by maintaining their own portfolio interests and not airing their differences and relationship difficulties outside of cabinet.

An unsightly political marriage of convenience, it looks awkward and uneasy to act out believably to the public.  Simply because it wasn’t a love match to be begin with founded on common policies, ethics, and trust.  Staying in power is what the game of politics has become since the 2010 reform.

With 15 months to go to the 2018 election, however, this is a crucial time to link their priority development areas to get some definite policy outcomes on the government scoreboard.  Will they put their heads together and do that?  No one really knows.

Tonga Police Commissioner Stephen Caldwell. Photograph: Radio New Zealand.

It’s obvious Pohiva’s fixation is with domestic politics.  His origins in 1980s socialism drives his obsession to clean up state corruption, which he sees is carried over from the last two administrations of his rivals, the former Prime Ministers Dr Feleti Sevele and Lord Tu’ivakano.

Is the Prime Minister cracking down on corruption?  Pretty much.  This past week alone, Radio New Zealand reported Pohiva’s doggedness produced “32 arrests over passport scams,” the illegal sale of Tongan passports in which “13 people have pleaded guilty and 19 are awaiting trial.”

On top of this is Pohiva’s crackdown on police corruption.  The media should’ve anticipated this move coming.  Considering a year ago the Prime Minister cautioned Tonga’s police commissioner, Stephen Caldwell, that police officers were involved in drug trafficking.  Kaniva New Zealand quoted him as saying: there was “a major problem with drugs being trafficked through the Kingdom to Asia and Australia.”

It’s of no coincidence the collaboration between Tonga’s police commissioner and the police minister, Pohiva’s son-in-law Mateni Tapueluelu, has yielded results.  Within a day of the passport story breaking on the week parliament resumed on Monday 31 July, Radio New Zealand published Caldwell had “38 disciplinary investigations underway along with 16 criminal ones” against Tongan police officers.

The media story yet to be pierced open is why doesn’t the police commissioner and police minister have information on the 1.4 tonnes of cocaine intercepted by the French Polynesian navy off Tonga on Tuesday 2 August?  This Sydney-bound shipment valued at US $100 million was seized on the Kingdom’s sea border, and destroyed in a Noumea nickel smelter.

Was the consignment travelling through Tonga, and if so, who’s letting it pass through and getting a cut of cocaine pie?

Tonga appears inadequate to have a police transnational crime unit that doesn’t seem to be cooperating with neighbouring states, such as New Caledonia, to obtain information on drug trafficking.  How can the government expect to combat transnational crime, when the police aren’t sharing information and security resources with Pacific countries on their border?

French authorities in New Caledonia destroy 1.4 tonnes of cocaine intercepted off Tonga in a nickel smelter. Photograph: Michael Field.

Meleane Taueli for Tonga police summed up the hard task of cleaning up the force, which was symptomatic of bringing an end to corruption in the state bureaucracy, government, and parliament.


I think it will be hard to change the behaviour but we will try.  People, they have the confidence to come out and complain against police.

Meleane Taueli


Part of the cure for correcting bad behaviour?  The public must make their concerns and criticisms heard and considered seriously, procedurally, with meticulous follow up on the state’s part as to how complaints were resolved.

However, there’s a treacherous and precarious side to witnessing Pohiva on the warpath to purge the state of corruption.  If any group of people bring down his leadership, it won’t be the noble MPs in opposition.  His inner circle of Democratic Party supporters may well do that for them.

Mo’ale Finau, who Pohiva appointed Governor of Ha’apai, demonstrated this in a story he told Radio New Zealand.  He alleged $600 thousand US dollars had gone missing in the Ha’apai cyclone rebuild of houses.

In 2014, the project was authorised by the former Tu’ivakano government and the World Bank in response to Cyclone Ian, which wiped out homes, roads, and infrastructure in the Ha’apai Islands.

Ha’apai cyclone rebuild of homes. Photograph: World Bank Group.

As Finau’s discussion unfolded, it became clear the Ha’apai Governor had no substantive knowledge of how the project was administered.


Honestly, I have heard rumours about this a long time ago, but this is the first time we kind of officially declare that there is some fund being unaccounted for.  The project is under the control of the Minister for Infrastructure [the Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva].  But there has been a committee under the Deputy Prime Minister, he has a ministry, it’s called MEIDECC for disaster.  So, I can say that the [Deputy Prime Minister’s] ministry and the ministry for infrastructure [the Prime Minister’s ministry], they are the ones that should come up now with an answer for this issue.

Mo’ale Finau


“Honestly, I have heard rumours about this a long time ago.”  Finau’s opening sentence set the political plot.

On Tuesday 2 August, Prime Minister Pohiva announced in the House another haphazard decision he’d thought up while visiting Ha’apai.  Did he brief cabinet before broadcasting it in parliament?  Who knows?

Kaniva New Zealand reported the Prime Minister’s calculation was “$1.3 million pa’anga could not be accounted for,” and he’d “ordered the Ha’apai Cyclone Ian project to close its office” and an investigation to follow.

Tatafu Moeki for the World Bank got on Radio New Zealand the day after the Pohiva parliamentary spiel to assure the bank “is working closely with Tonga’s government to make sure the government investigation was done properly.”

Tonga Lands Minister Lord Ma’afu, Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, and Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Pohiva’s trademark for recklessly going about his business shone like a light: state procedure was red flagged.  There was no audited report on which the Prime Minister based his charges.  Had Finau’s rumours sparked off a witch hunt?

Straightaway Tatafu Moeki was on Tonga’s case “to make sure the government investigation was done properly.”  Did the World Bank have doubts the probe into supposed missing millions may be carried out inappropriately or inaccurately?

World Bank reporting compliances on funds administered for the Ha’apai rebuild of homes are rigorous to prevent irregular spending in any way, shape, or form.

The real issue is that since 2014, Tonga’s Ministry of Lands has had difficulty registering leases for household allotments to occupants, many who were not registered before the cyclone, despite having built homes on plots.

Added to that, the World Bank has certain agreements the government has to meet regarding land registration before building homes can take place.

Our view?  Pohiva needs to be informed properly of the project’s administrative details by Moeki for the World Bank, Lord Ma’afu for the Ministry of Lands, and Deputy Prime Minister Sovaleni who oversees the disaster preparedness and resilience component of the housing rebuild.

Left in the dark without being fed correct information, the “rumours” relayed to Radio New Zealand might grow legs and run wild in the zoo.  The worst situation, which the government wouldn’t want to happen with just over a year until the election, is a repeat of the Pacific Games scenario.

No good will come from allowing a battle to ignite and rage between the Prime Minister and the Ha’apai project organisers.

If the rebuilding stops and has trouble resuming, there’s a serious risk the homes for Ha’apai people will not be completed by this administration.

People’s representatives to the Tongan parliament. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Our final thoughts is the unnerving thing about the politicians in the 2014 to 2018 parliament is they’re quick to talk about development without explaining what they mean by that, how they’re going to achieve it, and why it’s beneficial in respect to Tonga’s strategic development framework and the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Development is the feel-good concept parliamentarians use to kick around like a political football.  But it seldom if ever scores points for the home team who are the people who need it most to lift their livelihoods, living standards, and life prospects.

Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni (left). Photograph: The Pacific Community (SPC).

In that regard, Sovaleni’s way ahead of the field.  By no means do we see eye to eye on the sale of public broadcasting shares to a foreign-owned company.  Digicel may improve connectivity to the outer islands.  But the price of mobile data and internet connection will not drop because Tonga does not have the population size to lower production costs.

However, when push comes to shove and the pressure to deliver outcomes is switched up high, Sovaleni is able to articulate an economic development logic thoughtfully in English and Tongan.  That goes a long way in politics, locally and on the international stage.

The one quality government leadership has to be expert at?  Giving substance and sense to policy decisions made in the country’s best interests.


Development is very important for Tonga as a developing country.  And what we’ve done is actually allocate a certain percentage of a relatively large amount of our development assistance to building our [climate] resilience.  Right now it’s about approximately 30% of our development assistance goes into building our [climate] resilience and also looking at addressing some of the disaster issues.  As a result, most of our projects actually build in a factor, a component; for example if we’re doing infrastructure, we try to build in a climate resilience, disaster resilience component into it, recognising the fact that we are vulnerable to natural hazards.

Siaosi Sovaleni


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,

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