The Fusitu’a debates

Lord Fusitu’a in a standing committee meeting for parliamentary privileges, Fale ‘Alea ‘o Tonga. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Lord Fusitu’a seemed to be in the wars lately.  His name came up on TV Tonga News for determinedly taking the government to task over a number of issues that intersected on common ground – the law.  Legislation and policy had fast become recognised as this noble MPs expertise; that is, the professional field in which he drove critical debate and consensus-based decisions in standing committees and the legislature.

But here was the funny thing: international media didn’t quite know how to take Fusitu’a.  Was this guy for real?  How can you have a Tongan noble from the conservative upper class, advocating in parliament for social equality and the rights of citizenry, as if he was an Australian Labour Party MP?

Fusitu’a was more democratically principled in representing the party policies of the nobility than the Democratic Party led by the Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, who headed government.  Tongan media got that.

Public broadcaster, Radio and TV Tonga, gave the Fusitu’a House debates prime-time coverage.  In the Legislative Assembly he stated outright that for MPs to have the privilege of not being named in parliamentary discussions, as a measure of protecting a person’s identity and public reputation, meant that in all fairness, the same rule ought to apply to Tongan citizens.

He met with a hostile government reaction.  Internal Affairs Minister, Penisimani Fififta, sounded agitated towards him.  In stern disagreement, he made it known that he thought Fusitu’a’s proposal gave his standing committee on privileges more power than parliament.

Penisimani Fifita, Minister for Internal Affairs, and Lord Fusitu’a, Noble Representative for the Niua Islands. Photograph: Radio and Television Tonga.

This younger generation noble was difficult for ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government to control and keep quiet.  He would not back down when arguing his case.  Even when he was outnumbered by twelve cabinet ministers and the Democratic Party MPs in support, he staunchly laid down the guts of parliament’s core business.

Why was that construed by the government of the day to be problematic for advancing parliamentary democracy?  Fusitu’a was conscientiously carrying out political reform on behalf of his noble peers.  He believed he was doing his job and stuck to his barrister and solicitor guns by speaking directly on facts and evidence, rather than narrating half-baked whoppers like many a politician in the Pohiva regime.

But the scenario was far too complex for Western media to comprehend.  English-language media seemed to think they could report the news by an outdated sales-pitch that Tongan politics amounted to a showdown between the goodies and the baddies.

In this tired old storyline, the fictional goodies were supposed to be Pohiva’s gang, the commoners.  They stepped out the imaginary bad guys, those nine noble representatives.  And everyone in the Kingdom lived happily ever after because Tonga got democracy in the end.

Not so because the real script read like this.  Under the Pohiva regime, Tongan citizens had never been so miserable.  Common people, whom the government claimed to represent, suffered appallingly from acute economic demise, social disadvantage, and political damage to the Kingdom’s diplomatic reputation on the international stage.

Prime Minister of Tonga, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, and Lord Fusitu’a, Noble Representative for the Niua Islands. Photograph: Radio and Television Tonga.

Which brings us to the crux of why Fusitu’a drilled the Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, and his cabinet about Tonga being in dire need of an anti-corruption commissioner.  Pohiva’s government wanted an anti-corruption commissioner and a public relations commissioner mixed into one role to cut costs on paying two salaries and two offices. 

They misguidedly thought they could do a two-for-one deal on the cheap.  But on this point of separating out the two distinct commissioners’ roles, Fusitu’a conveyed a convincing message to Bruce Hill in an interview for Radio Australia.

 

Now an anti-corruption commissioner is someone that has to be completely independent of both the political and the administrative process if it’s to have any independence and transparency whatsoever.  There’s been a proposition by government that the office of the commissioner of public relations be combined with the office of the anti-corruption commissioner for budgetary reasons.  Added to that, the anti-corruption commissioner who’s a judicial officer, the equivalent of a supreme court judge under the current legislation, will no longer be so, but be paid within the government system, in government structures, and that [they] will be appointed by the House.  Now, my concern is that we maintain independence and transparency, both of the appointment process, and of the commissioner and of the commission, because whatever’s the appointing authority – these are relative to human nature – there will be some sensitivity towards those people who are appointing.  Secondly, it becomes a politicised process so there will be sensitivity there also.

Lord Fusitu’a

 

Was there a moral of the story that Tongans could take from this?  A number of wise sayings come to mind.  For a start there is the adage that goes: “Do not throw your pearls before swine.  If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

Of course this has New Testament origins, which is nothing new under the sun to Tongan nationals who’ve listened to the Chair of the Whole House Committee recite biblical quotes on Radio Tonga’s broadcast of the 2016 parliamentary session.  But here’s the moral, and it’s a goodie: Fools despise wise words.

The ill-fated recipe government cooked up for conflating two commissioners – public relations and anti-corruption – stressed this point.  Not only do these commissioners perform entirely different functions, but, allowing parliament to choose who gets the job makes the appointment political, not independent of government in the least.

How did running the government ever get this ridiculous for the Kingdom?  Really Tonga, are we really going to turn a blind-eye and pretend nothing is diabolically wrong here?

Authors

teena

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

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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