Democracy Dies in Darkness

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Kaniva New Zealand.

Dear leader thought he gave tremendous press conferences.  If the truth be told, jounalists came out dazed, muttering the pressers were terrible.  Bamboozling the audience, “his crazy stories” – as veteran journalist Kalafi Moala described it to the Nuku’alofa Times – had gotten out of hand.

But alas, the truth was proscribed in Tonga.  Dear Leader’s squelching of the press obstructed reporters from asking hard questions, let alone broadcasting that the storytelling sessions were dreadful to sit through.

And that was the thing: the facts got fudged so often what acurate information was there to publicly report on?  His yarns bred a swarm of conflicting narratives, which did little more than confuse the public on the receiving end.

In May, the bolt from the blue trending in news items and social media was Pohiva’s government withdrawal from co-hosting the 2019 Pacific Games with the Pacific Games Council and Tonga’s Organizing Committee.

A sore point got pounded, fracturing the country in two.  Some held to Kaniva New Zealand’s coverage, endorsing the Prime Minister’s Office press release that “financing the Games could drain TOP $100 million from the government budget.”

While others weren’t buying the storyline.  To them, the organizing committee chair Dr Feleti Sevele made sense.  Aid donors and non-government income bankrolled $139.1 million, and the government was to put up $12 million.

Sevele therefore “believed that the government’s $12 million contribution was not a burden,” reported Matangi Tonga.

Dr ‘Aisake Eke, a development economist and Pohiva’s former finance minister, added his expertise to Sevele’s assessment.

 

The government had already allocated funds for the 2019 Games in the coming new 2017/2018 budget.  There would be no need for Government to borrow money or impose extra duties or taxes.

‘Aisake Eke

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

But the subject that never saw the light of day was a recurring prod originating from an Asian Development Bank report, Tonga: Economic Update and Outlook 2012.  Dear Leader’s civil service was over-staffed with three-thousand odd employees.

 

The size of the civil service is a major drain on public resources.  High public sector wages have a negative effect on private sector development by crowding out capital spending and the purchase of other services from the private sector, by encouraging the government to boost taxes, and by setting up a knock-on effect on private sector wages and salaries.

Asian Development Bank

 

The state was the country’s largest employer, which made it the government’s responsibility to remunerate salary increases in the budget.

Did that ensue redundancies for a struggling small island economy?  What were the alternatives?  For this cabinet, it was inconceivable that the highest paid managers and ministers would take salary cuts to redistribute wealth equitably among lower ranks of the state heirarchy.

If Dear Leader was paying attention to reporting on Tonga, he wouldn’t be scanning pro-government news.  Obviously because he dictated the stories that were told, and dominated the narrative.

A wily politician would eye up coverage independent of official press releases spouting from the Prime Minister’s Office.  Signalling the strength of criticism and opposition to the regime in power, media non-aligned with government had firepower, despite pro-government outlets winning Pohiva’s favour.

Dr Sitiveni Halapua, East-West Center, Honolulu. Photograph: Matangi Tonga.

Under Pohiva’s crackdown on media, veteran journalist Pesi Fonua elected to publish academic criticism in an interview he published on May 27th for Matangi Tonga.  Fonua had sought a political commentary from Dr Sitiveni Halapua, an economist of the East-West Center in Honolulu.

Halapua had been ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s Deputy Leader for Tonga’s Democratic Party during the previous Tu’ivakano government.  In 2014, he divorced the party and left politics.

But he took with him insights on the people’s representatives’ mode of operation in the Tongan parliamentary and government system.  He knew the political tensions, personality rifts, and public service shortfalls resulting from ordinary people hunger for power.

This Professor from the Northern Niua Islands viewed democracy’s downward spiral through the lens of an insider and an outsider – a former MP and an academic.

Halapua advocated for nation building.  People’s representatives should be proficient at serving national interests opposed to self-interest in MP’s salaries and social status.

The unscrupulous lobbying for power that went on among Tonga’s politicians reflected political immaturity.  How were accountable adults meant to behave?

 

What we are searching for is how we can work together, despite our differences of opinions.  We have not been able to master that.

Sitiveni Halapua

 

Halapua impressed that MPs were permitted to publicly debate, disagree, and have differences of opinion in the legislature and parliamentary committees.  But were not supposed to carry on like disagreeable, distasteful, unhelpful good-for-nothings.

Dr Sitiveni Halapua, East-West Center, Honolulu. Photograph: Matangi Tonga.

 

 

A rational discussion on a dysfunctional political system did not amount to noble-bashing, condemning the nine Noble MPs because they’re nobles.  That had no relevance to a person’s ability in politics, professionalism at work, and aptitude to serve the country’s best interests.

The real problem?   Tonga’s “17 People’s Representatives can’t work together.”

Did the political environment worsen their incompetence at serving “the interests of the whole country?”

 

The main problem with parliament today is that the 17 People’s Representatives can’t work together, and therefore it is very difficult for parliament and the government to function properly.  It is very difficult for the House to work together to deal with national issues, very important for the whole country, not just for a constituency.  The priority of any government is to address the national interest.  The PM [Prime Minister] and his ministers, their major role is to look after the interests of the whole country.

Sitiveni Halapua

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

Sitiveni Halapua was truthful in dissecting unsavoury, unpleasant political behaviour of the people’s representatives.  A question surfaced: how did ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s premiership influence the fact that “17 People’s Representatives can’t work together?”

The noble MPs, by comparison, Halapua did not critique.  However last November 23rd 2016, he interviewed for Radio New Zealand’s Don Wiseman.  His eye-opener statement?  That there was “a very high possibility” the nobility would lead the next government in 2018.

 

That is a very high possibility, likelihood [of a noble-led government].  Because I must say – I don’t claim to listen to parliament debates all the time – but the few debates I listen to I am quite impressed with the performance of the nobles.  Not because they are nobles but probably because they do their homework.  I think the people’s representatives have yet to rise to that level.

Sitiveni Halapua

 

What benchmark of parliamentary homework did Halapua think the people’s representatives had to raise their performance to meet?  More than likely he was gesturing to the Noble from the North, Fusitu’a, Lords Representative for the Niua Islands.

On Tuesday May 23rd, Fusitu’a, a lawyer and legislator, fired his own volley of criticism against the government’s proposed constitutional amendments.  Interviewing for Radio Australia’s Bruce Hill, he laid down the law for his noble opposition and independent people’s representatives in the House.

 

The [Government] want the attorney general, the police commissioner, and the anti-corruption commissioner, who are all appointed by His Majesty currently, to be appointed by the Prime Minister and cabinet.  They want to reassert the Prime Minister and cabinet into Privy Council.  It’s a power grab.  It seems to be the case that the Prime Minister and current administration want control of every branch of government and completely blur the separation of powers and checks and balances that are essential to a Westminster democracy.  Our colleagues in parliament will agree that these constitutional amendments are not in the best interests of the country.  We believe that the Prime Minister and cabinet should not be in Privy Council, that they should not have appointing authority over these independent offices.

Lord Fusitu’a

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

Truth: Fusitu’a found it unacceptable for government to blur the separation of constitutional powers vital to a functional democracy.

If the Pohiva administration muddied the line between national executive and judiciary by appointing an attorney general, police commissioner, and anti-corruption commissioner who cabinet preferred, these high offices were not independent of government at all.

As Fusitu’a remarked to Hill, they became “tools or henchmen [of cabinet] to do their bidding.”

But if Fusitu’a was displeased, Kalafi Moala, journalist of thirty years running his newspaper out of Nuku’alofa, was completely peeved.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand’s Koro Vaka’uta at his Taimi Media Network office in Tonga, Moala pulled no punches.  He spoke his mind about Pohiva’s poor public performance as Prime Minister.

 

He will go down in our history as probably the worst Prime Minister we have ever had.  Many people feel that he should be out.  That he needs to have somebody else to lead the country that is more competent.  If you are going to have a politician [for a Prime Minister], you better have a politician you can trust and that is not our experience with him.  So we feel that we are to provide a voice for the voiceless, those people that are calling for him to be replaced.

Kalafi Moala

Kalafi Moala of Taimi Media Network. Photograph: Koro Vaka’uta.

The government withdrawal from co-hosting the 2019 Pacific Games in Tonga was the last straw.  Moala was right to say a silent majority of Tongans at home and in the diaspora were exasperated at the Pohiva administration’s power grab, rolled out in stages.

First, the dismantling and rumoured sale of Tonga Broadcasting Commission to Digicel, a foreign-owned company.  Second, the attack on media and dismissal of the public broadcaster’s senior staff who determinedly asserted their constitutional right to freedom of the press.

And most significantly, Fusitu’a’s area of parliamentary expertise – state corruption.  Was it a hit below the belt to for government to covet control over appointing the attorney general, police commissioner, and anti-corruption commissioner?

In terms of ethical practice in Tonga’s democratic system, yes.  For the simple reason reiterated by Fusitu’a: these independent bodies become political appointments under cabinet’s influence once they’re permitted to decide who gets the job.

Our thoughts?  Fusitu’a’s tweet on May 29th @LordFusitua.

 

Glad to be interviewed by @The_KorOcle of @RNZInews who’s under auspices of the PMA [Public Media Association] – review press freedom breaches, Constitutional Amendments.

Lord Fusitu’a

 

“Democracy dies in darkness” were Paul Thompson’s concluding thoughts, the President of the Public Media Association.  He wrote a piece for Stuff NZ on May 22nd headed: Tonga’s Prime Minister launches attack on public broadcaster’s independence.

In the nick of time and not a moment too soon.  Tongan journalists, writers, and academics who’ve put collective effort into developing national political institutions need our allies in New Zealand and Australia.

Our cause to see that Tonga’s democracy doesn’t die in darkness is a universal one.  If you’ve ever read Kalafi Moala and Pesi Fonua, two journalists of the same generation as Dr Teena Brown’s Tongan father, you might relate to this perspective.

Respect for the media in Tonga, the journalists who stand by their standards to keep reportage independent from government.  Respect for your work.

Taimi Media Network in Tonga. Photograph: Koro Vaka’uta.

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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