Tonga needs a younger Prime Minister

United Nations. The youngest noble’s representative to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly, Lord Fusitu’a, is a barrister and solicitor by profession.

Tongans knew the Kingdom was in dire need of a younger Prime Minister.  When the country’s most senior parliamentary journalist, Pesi Fonua, wrote that in the “19th minute of his address, ‘Akilisi lost track of his speech,” it was not funny.  In fact, it was cringe-worthy embarrassing to the point of being politically ridiculous.

‘Akilisi Pohiva, Tonga’s 74 year old Prime Minister for almost two years, was known for botching the English speeches written for him by a mismatched assortment of state bureaucrats.  The bureaucrats were known for squabbling and backbiting over what went into, and what got left out of, the Prime Minister’s orations.  How to resolve one bungling Prime Minister and a bureaucracy of sparring officials?

Here’s a suggestion: sack the speechwriters for penning pure political garble to confuse an elderly, doddery, and way past his prime head of government, not to mention the unfortunate audience having to listen.  Pohiva had difficulty reading aloud in English.  That we could see and hear when he attempted to do so. 

But Tonga’s Prime Minister also scored low on understanding press conference questions, and answering the questions astutely.  That had calamitous consequences for the Tongan government because their public relations fell into the depths of hopelessness.

United Nations. Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, stumbles over reading the Kingdom of Tonga’s statement written in English at the 71st United Nations General Assembly.

Why didn’t Pohiva speak Tongan at the United Nations General Assembly and have an English-language translator?  Surely that would have taken the pressure of him to perform at an international level he was glaringly incapable of.

There were specific reasons preventing an English translator for the Prime Minister being considered by the Tongan state.  English is Tonga’s second official language, and is widely spoken among the population. 

A public expectation therefore exists that the calibre of Prime Minister we get today is fully equipped with modern leadership competencies.  An ability to publicly and proficiently communicate in written and spoken English and Tongan is a fundamental skill, which the head of government is supposed to possess.

‘Akilisi Pohiva fell short of the mark on several capabilities.  Proving himself as a weak country leader of no great expertise or skilfulness, his deficiencies made Tongan citizens vulnerable.  The state was a mess, governed by substandard procedures, poor decisions, and ruthless bureaucrats and politicians – all out for themselves at the expense of dwindling government coffers.

Why did Pohiva remain in power?  Would it not have been kinder to put him and his government out of their misery by removing them from office?  On this contentious point, Tongan politics had gotten absurdly self-interested.

Photograph: Teena Brown.  Lord Vaea interviewing at his Auckland home for Tonga NZ Net on why he thought the Pohiva government would be subject to a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

Photograph: Teena Brown. Lord Vaea interviewing at his Auckland home for Tonga NZ Net on why he thought the Pohiva government would be subject to a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

Designed to cull pitiable Prime Ministers useless at the job was the vote of no confidence, a parliamentary mechanism written into the 2010 amendments of constitutional law.  Supposedly, Tonga was to have a vote of no hope in ‘Akilisi Pohiva and his cabinet of folly.  Lord Vaea was the hawker.  But here’s the thing: toying with the idea in media statements, Vaea never actually got one organised among the noble class of representatives to the legislature.

Two leading reporters on Tongan politics, Pesi Fonua and Kalafi Moala, did the fact-checking and analysis to call him out.  Pesi penned for Matangi Tonga Online that the Speaker’s Office at the Legislative Assembly had no record of a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister ever being filed for the House agenda. 

What was going on?  Did Vaea really run the vote of no confidence past the nine nobles’ representatives, including Ma’afu, Pohiva’s lands minister, to get endorsement that this would be their political strategy as the opposition, and that Vaea would stand as the contender for government leader?

Kalafi Moala’s critical analysis was telling.  The only journalist working out of Nuku’alofa with the moral courage to speak up against a Pohiva regime that had clamped down on media freedom, he was adamant that Vaea did not unequivocally represent a better leadership replacement. 

Moala’s take on Vaea was that he played old-school noble politics, riding a false assumption.  He presumed he had the right to roll Pohiva and lead the country because he was a noble.

Categorical error, as the late political philosopher Futa Helu may well have thought.  It was erroneous for Vaea to suppose, in this day-and-age, that being a noble gave him leadership entitlement over government.  That, he had to earn with a proven track record, like every other human being up for public scrutiny as a politician.

Enter Lord Fusitu’a, the noble’s representative for the Niua Group to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly.  His climate discussion at the United Nations General Assembly shone with intelligence and wisdom, but pragmatically, was timely and necessary.

He offered hope to younger generation Tongans, who made up the majority of people in the island homeland and the Australian, New Zealand, and American diaspora.  An ideal alternative to old-school leadership had arrived to mobilise the Kingdom towards an optimistic future.

Not all was despairingly depressing about the disastrous deeds of politicians in the Tonga Islands.  And although the consecutive Tu’ivakano and Pohiva governments that came in back-to-back, had shifted the Kingdom back-to-slack, the warning rang out clear: you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Photograph: Fusitu’a.  Lord Fusitu’a (right) with the Tonga delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York.

Photograph: Fusitu’a. Lord Fusitu’a (right) with the Tonga delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York.

Tonga needed a younger Prime Minister, for certain.  In fact, he is right there in parliament.  Our political opinion: sort the leadership out Pohiva and Vaea.  With or without a vote of no confidence, the 2018 parliamentary election for a Prime Minister will enable the right head of government for our people in changing times.

The truth is, Fusitu’a had generated a groundswell of widespread support for government leadership.  Furthermore, popular Tongan opinion is that change, right now, is a good thing for us as a nation and a people.  With this kind of optimism from the bottom up, what is there to fear, but fear of change itself.

Authors

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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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