Noble from the north

Lord Fusitu’a, Noble MP for the Niua Islands representing Tonga at the 2016 Bangkok conference for the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development. The theme was UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 of gender equality and empowering women. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Sitiveni Halapua made a comeback in regional media.  Severed from national politics in 2014 as the dumped Democratic Party deputy leader to ‘Akilisi Pohiva, in 2016 he elected to put his money where his mouth is.  A PhD in economics, it was Dr Halapua’s critical thinking that contributed to nation building the Kingdom of Tonga.

The politician of the past, that unfortunate Demo MP, had metamorphosed into solid community leadership.  Halapua was charting new development projects, such as the trimaran that provided sea transport to the Niua Group, his ancestral islands of the north.  Thank God northern Tonga could bring their smartest, sharpest, shrewdest kinfolk home to help the people address day-to-day needs, and advance collective interests.

Because here’s the thing.  The south, Tongatapu, the island where parliament and central government was located, had largely ignored the development of the north for too long, discounting the reality that the northern groups really did have strong political interests in leading the Tonga Islands.

Given the larger landmass and ocean territory belonged to the north, not the south, buttressed by a majority of Tonga’s PhDs, the country’s academics and intelligentsia staking identity claims in the north – the Niuas, Vava’u, and northern Ha’apai – how then, did this power and resource differential play out in present-day politics?

This was the very reason why Sitiveni Halapua’s Radio New Zealand interview with veteran broadcaster Don Wiseman was important.  Not only did he give an insightful commentary on what had gone wrong in the zoo – Pohiva’s failed government, but he gestured open-handedly that the leadership changeover for the 2018 election looked to be a noble-led government.

 

[A noble-led government,] that is a very high possibility, likelihood.  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.

Dr Sitiveni Halapua

 

But his astute observation also forced open the most crucial question of all.  What was the likelihood the leader chosen for an incoming government would actually be a noble from the north?  That is, a noble who was not from the traditional political control of Ha’a Havea Lahi in the south. 

Understandably then, the northerner hotly discussed and debated in the public domain as a strong PM contender for the 2018 parliamentary election was Lord Fusitu’a, the noble representative for the Niua Islands.

Despite being the legislature’s youngest noble representative, the Niua Fo’ou chief ticked the boxes for an all-rounder statesman.  Proving himself a high-achiever in a short period of two-years, he was an accomplished politician in vital leadership areas that Tonga required in contemporary times.  Exactly what was needed for sound government?

First, a prevalent expectation among Tongan citizenry was that an incoming Prime Minister would have the university qualifications and work experience relevant to succeeding in the top job.  Ideally, Fusitu’a was a barrister and solicitor.  Seeing the law had taken a beating under the Pohiva regime with two former ministers operating as a law unto themselves, he had the right professional background to keep the legislature on track as the Kingdom’s lawmakers, not lawbreakers.

 

The role of parliamentarians worldwide is to take policy that’s been given to them, or they address and put up policy, and then to present legislation and pass legislation in accordance with that policy.

Lord Fusitu’a

China’s Ambassador to Tonga and Lord Fusitu’a at a diplomatic dinner; Niua Fo’ou development was a priority discussion point. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Fusitu’a was clear-headed about what Tongan parliamentarians were elected to deliver.  He respected and adhered to process, knowing that democracy as a global system of power functioned correctly by sticking to state procedures, rules, and protocols.

If the government of the day could not follow the basic mode of operation, they went about short-cutting and short-circuiting a democratic system.  The end result?  Democracy turned to custard: it became an unaccountable autocracy manipulated by the whim and wish of the Prime Minister’s office.

Second, homeland and diaspora populations in Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, and America were well aware that Tongans worldwide had to bridge their political differences and work together for the development of their small island state.

Who was the emerging leader capable of binding young, middle-age, and old generations at home and overseas to a nation building project during a four-year term in office?  The Fusitu’a brand stood out, and not singly because he was an Australian-born Tongan and a Tonga national who connected the divide between both worlds.

More than that, he was fearless to put his neck on the line and speak up on difficult issues, such as gender equality and empowering women, which traditionally men in politics, particularly men of the upper class, steered away from.

 

Tonga is, statistically the population has more women than men.  However, our parliament is nearly entirely made up of men; there’s only one woman member.  So, my personal feeling is that the onus is upon us as male parliamentarians to take the initiative and to take ownership of protecting girls and women from violence; and to take ownership at a policy and a legislative level, as well as becoming advocates in our electorates and our communities to talk with our leaders so we can, not change Tongan culture, but empower women within the spectrum of Tongan culture.  In Tongan culture, women and girls are given an elevated place socially above men.  We want to maintain that which makes us unique, while empowering and protecting them from abuse and violence.

Lord Fusitu’a

Lord Fusitu’a contributing his views on Tonga’s participation in the Australian Seasonal Workers Programme to Dr Kara Scally-Irvine and Dr Daniel Fusimalohi. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

In one Radio New Zealand interview Dr Sitiveni Halapua did his duty to God, king, and country as an academic of the north, simply by making good sense of the hot mess down south.  It was the south, not the north, that had virtually collapsed on the job, incapacitating an already broke and bust Pacific Island bureaucracy.

The underlying message called out Tonga’s Prime Minister.  Since parliament wound down for the year, Pohiva had been absent from running the government.  Instead, he was receiving medical treatment in Auckland. Halapua’s main point hit hard because it was truthful: what the south really needed was to inhale an oxygen tank of integrity and honest behaviour. 

It was obvious to him, and a multitude of public spectators, that the current regime only had an inkling of what being the government meant in practice.  The moral of Halapua’s story: power was a futile tool if Prime Minister Pohiva and his cabinet had zero expertise in operating the machinery of government properly and procedurally.  What precisely was that machinery?  The state laws, policies, and processes of Tonga.

 

They are struggling with the implementation of what they want.  They realise that power itself is necessary but not sufficient and [that] they are struggling to find a common ground and a direction so that they all agree about where they are taking the country forward.

Dr Sitiveni Halapua

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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