Under the Dear Leader regime of Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, something odd happened every year just before the sitting of parliament. Desolate gloom cloaked the land, and no one dared talk about the budget. It appeared this small island developing state was convinced Mr Budget had been cursed by an evil spell of many years bad luck.
Dear Leader’s imaginary democratic government, which resembled autocratic high-handedness, elected to keep the budget a shady, spooky, scary secret. But once in a blue moon, the budget crawled out of the shadows to rear its dreadful head in public.
And the cabinet of Dear Leader would enter the House flaunting the budget, venerating their prized weapon of economic oppression.
“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws,” wrote Maurice Sendak in his classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.
At the legislature’s annual budget reading, a siren went off for the seven Noble MPs in opposition. None-so-much as for the Noble MP of the Niua Islands, Lord Fusitu’a, an expert political swordsman in dissecting the budget by slicing it to smithereens.
There is a current budget of TOP$1 million for the Attorney General and his office. Another TOP$3 million was allocated for the Ministry of Justice. Why is another TOP$70,000 allocated for legal practitioners of the Government Ministries, while taxpayer’ money is already spent on the Attorney General’s Office? Does the Government and Cabinet have an issue with the Attorney General himself? Do they refuse his legal advice? Is the integrity of his office under question by the authorities?
Fusitu’a was ahead of his time. Nearly a year ago in June 2016, he objected to inefficient government spending. He considered it a waste of limited public funds at the expense of the ordinary Tongan taxpayer.
The March 2017 World Bank economic update on Tonga affirmed Fusitu’a’s stand to have a sensible, practical national budget. The bank warned Pohiva’s government to “contain unproductive spending [and] manage its expenditures prudently.”
It would be true to say that during last year’s budget deliberations the Noble from the North checked government’s unwise expenditure. But in return for his judicious insight, Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni told Fusitu’a he was beside the point. It appeared he was instructing him to be quiet.
The concern raised by the Noble [Fusitu’a] is irrelevant and the deliberations must continue according to the House agenda.
Penisimani Fifita, who’s now Pohiva’s internal affairs minister, was the Whole House Committee Chair. He supported Sovaleni’s silencing order. The budget debate, which Fusitu’a instigated, was stopped immediately. Fifita commanded a different issue be talked about altogether.
Fusitu’a and his relentless questioning was a piercing thorn in government’s side. If they could muzzle the Noble MP for the Niua Islands, then the budget could sneak past the sleepy House without activating a distress signal.
In the public domain, bringing up the name – budget, budget, budget – was like uttering a swearword. With the media under the iron fist of Dear Leader who avowed the public broadcaster, Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC), was government’s enemy, there seemed little hope of budget forecasts featuring in the news.
Besides, the government media was preoccupied with surviving an anticipated missile launch of sacking orders. Kalafi Moala explained to Radio Australia’s Bruce Hill that ironically, two days before World Media Freedom Day on May 3rd, Nanise Fifita, TBC’s general manager, was the first to get her marching orders.
Moala expected there were more to come.
If they are able to do this to the general manager, they should be able to do this to the two senior journalists which is Viola Ulakai as well as Laumanu Petelo who have been under the threat of the government to be dismissed as well.
The motive for firing Fifita smelled suspiciously like a state plot to suppress media freedom.
She hasn’t been able to control some of the kinds of information. They’ve held her responsible for the kind of news information and attitude toward government that the journalists have.
Journalists were snared in the self-censoring fable that Mr Budget was not to be poked and prodded until Members of Parliament opened up the guts of it, only to close the gaping hole quickly, giving it a disability pass to go through the House.
By that time, it was too late for media to sound a danger alarm. After-thought criticism did little to stimulate and educate public opinion. Once the budget slid through Tonga’s Legislative Assembly, it could not be stopped.
Ignoring the importance of sorting out the budget before the legislature convened in June, Dear Leader took a surprise trip to New Zealand. All expenses paid by the Tongan taxpayer, the entourage included his son.
Visiting the company Mr Apple, a New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE), he went because one week in April three Tongan fruit-pickers hightailed it from the job.
Kalino Latu reported Dear Leader was anxious that “Mr Apple might take” the jobs off the Tongans “and give it to the Samoans.” Thus, the three runaway Tongans prompted Pohiva to assure “Mr Apple that his government [would] review the recruitment process to address discipline issues among Tongan workers at the site.”
Could the Prime Minister have sorted the matter from Tonga without the cost of unplanned travel? Mr Apple was to get a reassessment. However, the eight Tongan workers in Northland who were sent home, and accused by some community members with having sex with girls under the legal age of 16 years – defined by New Zealand law as statutory rape – didn’t get reviewed.
Was that a cover up? Why was Pohiva’s administration selective about which RSE sites were evaluated for “discipline issues,” and which ones weren’t? It didn’t make sense not to review the whole programme, considering the gravity and illegality of sexual abuse allegations.
Back to Mr Budget, critical to the House debate of 2017 was the economic uncertainty red-flagged by the World Bank as a warning sign for Tonga. How was Pohiva’s government going to pay for its civil servants pay rise and facilities for hosting the 2019 South Pacific Games?
Adding fuel to the fire, the freedom of the press furnace had exploded. Query: was the media’s most pressing concern in any way related to the budget?
Answer: yes, in light the rumour in public circulation was that the government intended to sell Tonga Broadcasting Commission to a private sector corporate, Digicel.
Because here’s the thing: Pohiva had argued in more than one media interview that Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) hadn’t made the government any money over the past decade.
In his mind, this gave him a financial reason to amputate the public broadcaster. Starting with the removal of the general manager, Nanise Fifita, he waged a personal war by insisting their coverage of his government was partial and unfair.
But the Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA) called Pohiva’s bluff. Their press statement advised the Prime Minister of Tonga “to take [his] own claims seriously and seek [an] independent review of the public broadcaster.”
It is undemocratic to make vague claims of bias to justify extraordinary threats against news media that belong to the public, not government. Ordinary tax-paying citizens of Tonga pay the bills at the Tonga Broadcasting Corporation, not the government.
Bolstering PIMA’s stand was the 2017 world press freedom index released by Reporters Without Borders. This French based organisation evaluating media freedom threats to journalists contended that “a highly toxic anti-media discourse” was at its highest in fifteen years.
Public opinion turned up the pressure on Dear Leader to undertake back-to-back reviews of his deteriorating government. Two reviews had been dished on his plate to digest without squirming at an acerbic after-taste: independent re-examinations of Tongan workers in New Zealand’s RSE programme and the performance of Tonga Broadcasting Commission.
While the public outcry for reviews attracted media attention, on April 26th, Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni tweeted a shout out @totisova. He was thanking the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Austrian Government, and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) for attending the Pacific Regional Energy and Transport Ministers Meeting in Nuku’alofa, April 24th to the 28th.
Pacific Centre for RE and Energy efficiency open for business.
It was here that Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister launched his Pacific Centre of Excellence on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency. “Open for business,” he remarked.
SPC bankrolled the project, press releasing it was a “hub for knowledge and technical expertise on matters related to sustainable energy project implementation.” What business, exactly, was Sovaleni referring to?
It will also promote domestic energy entrepreneurship and will act as a business incubator for innovative energy start-ups and business models with high potential for local value creation.
Secretariat of the Pacific Community
That’s when government enterprise suddenly got murkier. Pohiva’s regime had integrated clean energy for Tonga’s transport sector into the Tonga Energy Road Map, an ambitious project that sought to transform 50 percent of the country into renewable energy by 2020. Falling well behind target, the goal would not be reached.
Questions surfaced about Sovaleni’s new project on renewable energy and efficiency. Was this a government commercial enterprise aimed at making profit from Tongan people as “a business incubator?” Where was the reporting system on finances? Did this project’s administration report to SPC or the Government of Tonga?
In Tonga, the principle of good governance is straightforward. If accountability mechanisms recording where the money comes in and how the money is spent are not transparent to the public, then a project can look as if it’s headed for parliament’s anti-corruption committee to decipher.
Enter Lord Fusitu’a, the chair of parliament’s standing committee on anti-corruption. The day after Sovaleni’s tweet, Fusitu’a tweeted a public update @LordFusitua. The committee had set their work plan.
First up on Tonga’s anti-corruption agenda was government’s proposed casino and the suspected sale of Tonga Broadcasting Commission to Digicel.
Year’s 1st Anticorruption Committee meeting, set new membership, work plan coming, UNPRAC workshop & discussed AC matters – Casino, Digicel deal.
Fusitu’a’s Facebook post with the same anti-corruption update hash tagged #GoodGovernance as the political message. His committee meant serious business.
Our thoughts on the upcoming budget reading, which ought to be central to public discussion in a politically stable country, is this. If a showdown transpires between cabinet’s entrepreneur, Siaosi Sovaleni, and Noble opposition anti-corruption campaigner, Lord Fusitu’a, it could well end up being Tonga’s political Clash of the Titans. And that’s a good thing for the governed, the people, to know precisely what the government is up to in their country’s name.
This year, Sovaleni, Pohiva, and their group of twelve in cabinet might be a tad hesitant to quell Fusitu’a on the opposition bench from firing loaded questions about the budget. The bottom line? State integrity is at stake.
For the simple reason that ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government has a lot to answer for in public. And despite the Prime Minister’s media crackdown, Tonga has an informed, educated, articulate citizenry who are asking for comprehensive evidence that government business is all above board.