Trump Islands

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

The zoo had morphed into a right wing regime that sold half of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission down the river of privatizing state assets.  It sent out a sharp signal that the democratic politics ‘Akilisi Pohiva once staked his thirty-year career on for the people’s left, had ended.

His government were so far removed from its socialist origins, their decisions confused the Tongan public at home and overseas.  If Pohiva no longer stood for public assets remaining in the hands of the ordinary Tongan taxpayer, then what values did the Democratic Party represent?  What did Pohiva’s leadership stand for, apart from acquiring out-and-out power to belligerently crush any opposition to his will-to-dominate Tongan politics?

On Monday 12 June, parliament sat to debate the budget for the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year.  MPs had seven days over a three-week period to analyse the most important annual plan to manage the country’s finances.  For a large part of seven days, government and noble MPs argued over the Pacific Games and other matters.

On Thursday 29 July, an hour after midnight, the budget finally crept past twenty-six MPs grappling to stay awake in their seats.  The final vote was 15-9 to the government.  The problem was after three weeks of an annual parliamentary talk-fest, Tongan people were none the wiser on how the outcome of this budget would politically and economically hit Tonga hard.

Tongan parliament’s budget reading. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

No matter how relentless critics were at condemning the heavy-handed political manoeuvring of Pohiva and his ministers, the government succeeded at turning parliament into organised chaos – a strategy of creating turmoil to get their noble opponents snapping at every issue cropping up in the media.

The noble MPs swallowed the bait, hook, line, and sinker.  As a voting bloc of seven representing their estates and people, Tonga’s landed gentry voted as an alliance – a first for noblemen in parliament to stand united against the budget.

But they also brought up a mixed-bag of interests, which wandered from a disciplined and meticulous focus on the budget.  Thus, their main argument struggled on its feet because they hadn’t stuck to a clear and consistent line of reasoning as to why the budget was dodgy.

Pohiva’s method of organised chaos highlighted the reach and influence of Donald Trump’s U.S. Republican politics.  Cyclone Trump had struck Tonga, seizing the government’s thinking.

Preceding the budget, a May press conference saw Justice Minister Vuna Fa’otusia unmask that the government was running Trump Islands.  They’d hatched a plan for the next 17 months leading into what resembled a premeditated re-election of Prime Minister Pohiva for a second government term.  The Tongan news site, Kaniva, captured Fa’otusia’s tone and tenor.

 

Look at the news and see how President Donald Trump rejects policies that were passed by the Obama administration.

Vuna Fa’otusia

Tonga’s Justice Minister Vuna Fa’otusia. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Specifically Fa’otusia referred to the decision to withdraw from co-hosting the 2019 Pacific Games.  Cabinet dug their feet in, recruiting legal representation from Rodney Harrison QC in Auckland, New Zealand.  While the government formulated their defence against the Pacific Games Council’s court action to seek damages for a breach of contract, the media forgot to ask: how much would Harrison’s legal fee cost the country?  Why was the attorney general not representing the government?  Where, exactly, in the budget was this extra spending allocated?

Generally Fa’otusia pointed to Trump’s infamous presidential executive orders.  Tonga had no legal equivalent, true.  But what he meant to say was that the Prime Minister could discard policy and law decisions he’d inherited from the previous administrations of Lord Tu’ivakano from 2010 to 2014, and Dr Feleti Sevele from 2006 to 2010 – and parliament couldn’t stop him.

But before the presser, Fa’otusia publicised a whopping change: they’d amend the law so Pohiva could get what he wanted.  Government proposed to upend the King’s executive power to make key appointments, by bringing this decision making authority under “the prime minister and cabinet.”  Indira Moala for Radio New Zealand published the story.

 

‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government is proposing an amendment that would see top roles such as the attorney general, police commissioner and anti-corruption commissioner, appointed by the prime minister and cabinet.

Indira Moala

Tonga’s King Tupou VI. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

 

 

Suddenly, the stage was set for a show down between the Privy Council who advised the monarch on matters of law, and the Prime Minister and cabinet, looking to control high-level appointments that dealt with the law.

Straight after Fa’otusia’s announcement, King Tupou VI appointed two new members to Privy Council – Wesleyan Church Secretary, Tevita Havea, and a surgeon, life peer, and former Deputy Prime Minister in the Sevele administration, Viliami Tangi.

Here were tactical choices in Privy’s makeup, which the media should have question marked and raised as a matter of public interest.  Why didn’t they?  By this, we mean that the demands for a free press in Tonga had amplified over the sacking of TBC’s general manager, Nanise Fifita, and its subsequent sale of 49% shares to Digicel, a private corporate.

In reality?  The press were disengaged from political reporting that could be taken as controversial.  They were tangled up in self-censorship to stay alive.

The odd journalist – like veteran news reporter Kalafi Moala – did fault-find ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s leadership as the root cause of all political ills to reproduce a monster of a dysfunctional state.

But to poke at the King’s Privy Council by inquiring – what does this arrangement symbolise? – that, was strictly out of bounds with Tongan reporters of the conservative kind.

Secretary of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, Reverend Dr Tevita Havea. Photograph: Meliame Fifita.

To make sense of strategies aimed at counteracting Tonga’s unstable political landscape, two questions need positing – regardless of whether the media microscope is examining the King’s selection of Privy Council members.

Did choosing Havea symbolise the reinvention of an old model of church and state – a prototype that echoed and evoked the 19th century inception of a Tongan Westminster parliament at the time of the 1875 constitution?  Further to this, why were two non-legal practitioners – Havea and Tangi – advising the King on Privy’s appointments and disciplinary panel?

Undoubtedly the Prime Minister and cabinet’s aggressive claim of appointing rights for “the attorney general, police commissioner and anti-corruption commissioner” is the weighty piece of government legislation in ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s four-year term.

It places noble MPs under considerable pressure to raise their performance as a voting bloc of politicians, first and foremost, for a detailed reason.  The public must be informed about criticisms of the bill, as opposed to only knowing a single government narrative.  Why is it unfavourable to Tonga’s political development?  In plain lay-man’s language, what arguments against the bill are the nobles preparing for press release?

Tonga’s Noble MPs seated in parliament. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Assuming the government has the numbers in parliament to pass the bill, will political tensions between the government and the noble opposition escalate if the King in Privy Council doesn’t sanction it into law?

Might this pierce open Pohiva’s longstanding grievance?  That being, the Prime Minister’s desire to abolish the 9 nobles seats.  Or, abolish the nobles election by allowing Tongan nationals registered on the general roll to vote the 9 nobles into parliament.

Whatever the answers to these stinging prods, sinister aspects of Tongan politics have surfaced in public life.  Antagonism in national politics feeds backers and bottom dwellers in what’s become a hardened, hostile, dividing line.

Ordinary people are at loggerheads in which extreme violence has erupted.  The case in point is Kolio Tapueluelu.  Criticising Pohiva at a May press conference, he was brutally beaten on a Nuku’alofa street and hospitalised by men who support the Prime Minister.  Rumoured in Tonga was that the Prime Minister had his own personal security, and that these were the same men who viciously attacked Kolio Tapueluelu.

Tonga’s Noble MPs, Tu’ilakepa and Tu’iha’ateiho with People’s MP for Vava’u, Samiu Vaipulu. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

The abysmal reality is that it’s by no means safe to be a nobles representative, or a people’s representative, in opposition to the Pohiva government.  A long-term life expectancy in politics is uncertain as the 2018 election nears.  In parliamentary debates, there’s a likelihood the Chair of the Whole House Committee will rule in government’s favour to close down the dissenters.  Worse still, if an MP’s argument is determinedly critical of government, there’s a chance it will be edited out of public record in the Hansard reports.

Outside of secured and gated parliamentary grounds, opposition MPs know to be watchful of their own safety and that of their families and loved ones.  To compound the context of state intimidation, the Police Minister whose ministry is responsible for protecting the public is Mateni Tapueluelu, the Prime Minister’s son-in-law.  Added up, conflict of interest and tyranny in government is at a level of corruption that only the worst developing countries in the world would shamelessly parade.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva and Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

And here’s the thing about the June budget, which the media didn’t scrutinize, resulting in the public not receiving a critical analysis.  ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government railroaded Tonga’s largest budget ever of $595,804,400 million pa’anga through the Legislative Assembly on July 29th.  Matangi Tonga reported Tonga’s budget deficit was $48.2 million pa’anga, and that eleven donors and banks, plus unconfirmed donors contributed $251.2 million pa’anga to government expenditure.

The $251.2 million pa’anga donation to expenditure is spent on what, exactly, apart from massive salary supplements for education and health?  As Philip Cass for Kaniva questioned, were figures adjusted correctly after the Pacific Games withdrawal to give an authentic record of definite money in the budget?  Importantly, what were government’s priorities in the budget for 2017, and the election year of 2018?

In Fiji, MP Aseri Radrodro for the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SOLDEPA) was delegated the opposition’s right of response to the government budget in parliament this July.  Hitting the nail on the head, Radrodro’s critique resonated the structure and composition of a carefully thought-out argument we wanted to hear from the noble opposition in Tonga’s Legislative Assembly.

 

We have a budget of $4.35 billion dollars.  With a revenue of $3.85 billion dollars, and an estimated net deficit of $499.5 million.  When we look at the Military budget of $175.9 million, and contrast that with the productive sectors of Agriculture which got $86.3 million and the Ministry of Sugar which was allocated $60 million, the real picture of where the government priority lies, is clear.

Aseri Radrodro

Tonga’s Noble MPs seated in parliament. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

It’s true that seven noble MPs and two people’s MPs voted against the budget.  However, their collective voice on where “the [Pohiva] government priority lies” and why they disagreed with it, wasn’t caught by media and the public.

What Tongans did hear via radio broadcast of parliament was a clash between sides; seven days of shots and blasts continuously fired and fielded.  People stopped listening for a budget critique because the Pacific Games quarrel took up a fair amount of space and energy, and there was limited time on the floor to get the real business done.

Consequently, MPs reduced their arguments to particular points or parts they wanted to dispute.  For example, whether the budget was legally sound seeing requisite laws connected to the repealed Pacific Games Act 2013 should also have been revoked.

A well-organized strategy would’ve seen an opposition MP delegated to lead the debate by collating various arguments and speaking on point to the prevailing public interest: “the government priority lies” where in the budget?

Similar to Fiji, Tonga bypassed the economy.  There was no actual investment in “the productive sectors of agriculture” and fisheries, and growing export trade to regional markets.  Tongans can forget about economic development and job creation under ‘Akilisi Pohiva.  The poor will be poorer, and disparities between rich and poor worsened.

Tonga’s People’s Representatives to the Legislative Assembly. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

In all honesty, there was no real direction in the budget.  From government revenue collected in taxes and levies – more than export trade, along with the $251.2 million pa’anga in donor and bank money, a notable portion was deposited in Tevita Lavemaau’s Finance Ministry.  To be redistributed on what, precisely, it wasn’t specified.  Although we can forecast that the Prime Minister’s environmental disaster golf course and park at Popua is likely to be getting a cut.

The United Nations 17 sustainable development goals aren’t evident across all ministries in policy and spending.  The government did comply with the King’s speech delivered at parliament’s opening by allocating extra-large slices of budget pie to health and education.  Oddly, however, defence and the palace office spending increased, while the attorney general and ombudsman looked meagre by comparison.

The attorney general and ombudsmen are expected to operate as institutional mechanisms for safeguarding the rule of law and anti-corruption.  Why so little for such a mammoth job and responsibility to the public?

Our thoughts?  Pohiva’s battle for the attorney general, police commissioner, and anti-corruption commissioner appointments looks to be a precursor for abolishing the nobles seats, or forcing their election by registered voters on the general roll.

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva with his son-in-law, Police Minister Mateni Tapueluelu standing right of him. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

And if that’s where the true “government priority lies” then we are in trouble.  Voters in any democratic country remember leaders by what they did for the economy and jobs – good or bad.

Pohiva’s government will go down in history for failing to fix a broken economy because of an obsession with stockpiling power for no good reason but to wipe out political opponents.

The noble MPs have their work cut out for them.  If they perceive themselves as the moral high ground – an alternative government in waiting, then they’ll need highly principled and stable leadership, armed with an intelligent set of policies prioritising the economy and securing people’s livelihood.

We’ve yet to see them rise above government’s political pellets in parliament and smear campaigning in public to combine work experience, skills, and knowledge for advancing Tonga’s national interests.

Eliminating poverty has to be integral to the nobility’s vision for the country.  Pohiva’s regime have ignored it.  And if Tongan politicians aren’t about getting their people out of poverty, then what are they good for – seriously?

We’re hoping the nobles regroup before the House sits on Monday 31 July and strategize to hold the government, along with the Chair of the Whole House Committee and MPs in support of Pohiva, accountable to parliamentary rules for maintaining an orderly, self-controlled, intelligible debate chamber.

People’s MP for Ha’apai Vili Hingano with Noble MPs for Ha’apai, Tu’ihangana and Tu’iha’ateiho. Photograph: Fale Alea ‘o Tonga.

Simply because Tongans at home and overseas have reached saturation point with the conflict-ridden politicking of a backward-looking government.  As a people from Tonga to the diaspora, who remit a generous share of GDP, we deserve an honest, ethical, dirt-free, forward-looking government that can, at the very least, guarantee the country a financially sound and sustainable budget; one that’s transparent so the public can ascertain where the country’s money comes from, and how it’s spent.

The truth is, the deplorable way cabinet and cronies carry out their dubious political affairs, one might be duped into thinking we’re asking for a miracle.  No.  Tongans have the right to a reliable and sensible national budget.

We should never sell ourselves, our children, and our future short with a government legacy that doesn’t respect the country’s humble finances, and shady politicians who look as if they’re lining their pockets while gearing up for re-election.

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 chairs the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, New Zealand and publishes the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net.

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