The Fusitu’a story was hot. People all over the region were talking about the noble politician from Tonga speaking up strongly on climate migration. Tweeting live from Manhattan at the UN General Assembly, social media allowed his pictures and insights to travel across the Pacific diaspora, while print media in English and Tongan gave bilingual coverage to key messages.
Koro Vaka’uta had a hunch Fusitu’a’s climate talk would take off. Reporting for Radio New Zealand, he ran the story in three news items for mainstream media, uploading an interview for airplay on Dateline Pacific.
The man’s voice on radio nailed it for an international public. Fusitu’a spoke English with an Australian brogue. It was the whole package – engaging personality, lawyer and legislator, slick suits, shaved head, Polynesian body art, and bonds to an island homeland as well as overseas diaspora in Australia, New Zealand, and America – that wowed the crowd.
He had all of that, and it was very much woven into the contemporary Pacific Islander experience. His public persona as a Tongan politician with an astute legal mind reflected the ways in which non-Westerners have adapted to a global world where borders and boundaries between peoples and places have collapsed.
The Fusitu’a leadership style was a balanced blend of local Tongan tradition with popular culture swagger; the politics of representing a tiny population on an international stage of big players; and, the sentiments of a small island people at one massive yearly talkfest for countries worldwide.
But his true claim to fame was an eloquent and unpretentious communication approach. He charmed mainstream and Tongan media along with their audiences into thinking about the hard questions shaped by real politik. That is, how are Tonga’s national interests affected by climate migration, disappearing islands, and vulnerable communities?
A long overdue departure from Tongan newspaper gossip, it was a political strategy that set him streets apart from his peers, the members of parliament in Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. No Tongan politician in the government eras of former Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano and current Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva had ever achieved that.
So why was the Fusitu’a story hot? Two interrelated reasons. First, his media signature as a public figure – Tongan parliamentarian, barrister and solicitor, noble and estate-holder for Niua Fo’ou – was woven together by a political belief. The noble parliamentarian considered that “dialogue and liaising with other parliamentarians from various other countries [was the correct process to] get some kind of uniformity of policy and legislation.”
The parliamentarian – the onus is upon us to attend meetings like this; to dialogue and liaise with other parliamentarians from various other countries on a regional and sub-regional level so that we get some kind of uniformity of policy and legislation, which we then bring back to our countries, and enact, so that wherever you go, you’re able to ensure that there’s a uniformity across the board. And that’s one of the most crucial roles of parliamentarians is these types of meetings; we can dialogue, exchange ideas, and be able to help and inform one another.
Concurrently, he placed importance on policy and legislative consistency and standardisation across the globe. Definitely a Tongan thing, Fusitu’a, despite looking younger generation cool, was a stickler for principles, protocols, and procedures guiding all parliamentary business, whether that be at national, regional, or international levels such as the United Nations world parliament.
The media narrative of Fusitu’a at the UN for Tonga rolled out a reliable and coherent message: climate migration needed urgent policy and legislative attention. What was so hard about that? His people got it, which made him a trustworthy Tongan leader and spokesperson in the public eye.
Make no mistake: here was the upcoming political figure to watch for Tonga. More than that, Fusitu’a was also a future head of government, given that he could consolidate a support base with younger generation Tongans, who make up the majority of the island state and overseas diaspora populations.
Would he try his hand at that? Why not. With all the media publicity and Tongan interest he mustered over his New York appearance at the UN General Assembly, we see Prime Minister material, and one hot contender for government leadership in the not too distant future.