In New Zealand, “the longer an MP stays in power, the more solidified they become as a member of an elite class” of the political establishment. Claire Timperley argued this point in her opinion for Newsroom.
Radio New Zealand broadcaster Gordon Campbell impressed that in a House of 122 members, New Zealand “MPs own a staggering 350 rental properties in all, 76 MPs own two properties or more, and three MPs own seven properties or more.”
Parliament was an elite club of property owners making money off renters who couldn’t afford to buy homes. Ironically, instead of inexpensive housing, New Zealanders had 122 MPs of which many were profiting from poor people’s misery.
Adding salt to the injury of inequality, out of the 35 richest countries in the world to make up the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), New Zealand had the highest rate of homelessness.
For a small developed country the size of 4,693 million, 40 thousand New Zealanders were sleeping rough without an abode, or living out of vehicles. New Zealand is a disgrace to the welfare state.
Heading into the 2017 election, poverty in New Zealand is an issue that’ll decide votes for Maori and Pacific communities who continue to be the poorest in the country.
NZ Green Party MP (Member of Parliament), Metiria Turei, got hammered by journalists for telling her story of committing benefit fraud to survive, twenty years ago, as a young unemployed mother on the DPB (Domestic Purposes Benefit). She confessed on July 16th while delivering the Greens social development policy at the party conference, which was a “$1.5 billion families’ package.”
Three weeks of media persecution prompted Turei to announce on August 9th she was retiring from politics post-election. Public attacks took its toll on her family’s privacy and wellbeing. Truth telling came with an immense price for Metiria Turei, amputating her political career.
Before bowing out in September when New Zealand voters went to the polls, she summed up the sentiment of leftist politicians and voters.
Politicians decide if we fix poverty in this country. Politicians decide if we don’t fix poverty in this country. That’s the purpose of my story.
Giovanni Tiso for The Pantograph Punch captured the brutality of a politicised New Zealand media. Explicit reportage espousing a conservative ideology had unleashed a “narrow understanding of journalism, which has no regard for social value.”
What good is it to anyone when a politician is brought down not because she didn’t tell the truth but because she failed to control the narrative? And whose interests are being served, when the issue she had risked so much to raise was endemic poverty and the systems that ensure its perpetuation.
In Tonga, people know political irony. Undoubtedly they want to have honest, hard-working people’s representatives in government. Ministers who create jobs and better life chances for people, and importantly, lift families out of poverty.
At the same time, they watch reporters and sceptics go hammer and tongs at the Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, and his cabinet ministers. What they take in is how the government responds; talking slippery, snarling angrily, or flatly refusing to give media interviews.
The range of responses? Understandable, when you think that however they react, if journalists are working from a premeditated viewpoint to angle their questions at politicians and frame their stories, they don’t necessarily intend to make them look good.
Fact: the relationship between media and politicians is fraught with tension. Common sense: you shouldn’t romanticise about media and politicians. Often simulating one another’s behaviour, they’re competing for the same stakes – to influence public opinion on issues of public interest and raise their profile and popularity.
This year alone, muddled up arguments vented in parliament have not solved our poor nation’s debt distress and lack of income troubles.
Worse still, the ill-informed way MPs (Members of Parliament) dispute side matters and make mountains out of molehills, one could be forgiven for thinking they don’t get that Tonga’s broke. Has our parliament mistakenly presumed taxpayers have got all the time and money in the world for them to prattle away aimlessly?
Who benefits from quarrelling in parliament? MPs and journalists. Politicians get news coverage whenever they stage a spectacle, and journalists get ratings from scandalous stories.
For a developing country, Tongan MPs salaries are high and sought after. Public figures who’re wholly capable of showing a seamier side of human nature, political candidates have been known to be pretty ruthless about winning seats. What’s more, it’s their motives that need close examination.
Which is why public scrutiny is vital to a functional parliamentary democracy. It’s the only way to suss out who’s who in the political zoo and what work they actually do, which taxpayers and aid donors are funding.
We are living in the global age of anti-corruption. Ordinary Tongans must strengthen the public accountability process by demanding that MPs at constituency meetings – people’s representatives and nobles alike – report for their time.
As well, voters have to push for MPs to truthfully document the work they do from 9 to 5, as part of their annual electorate reports. It’s only fair.
If people request that MPs disclose their attendance record in parliament and work outcomes that’ve benefitted Tonga by accounting for the time they’re paid for, then that process of face-to-face accountability can be integrated into the state system. It offers a practical method in which public lobbying triggers transparency and organisational change.
The biggest worry for Tonga that we should be focused on is this. The 2017 to 2018 budget of $595,804,400 million pa’anga has a $48.2 million pa’anga deficit, and most of the money is spent on salaries for 5,054 public servants.
Tonga’s public service is seriously overstaffed. What’s more, government has inherited the burden of paying a 5% increase for their employees’ cost of living allowance.
Matangi Tonga reported that “Tonga’s Cabinet Ministers have given themselves a 5% increase,” but this “has not been extended to civil servants.” Should it be challenged that cabinet ministers set their own salaries? Yes.
In saying that, you’ve got to do the math. How will 5,054 people be paid an extra 5% from a budget that’s in deficit, and a government which is not bringing in trade? The answer: they won’t without the state falling into further debt.
The solution that international banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have consistently put to the Tongan government since Feleti Sevele’s administration is to make job redundancies in the public service.
It’d be naïve to cancel out restructuring – a polite policy term for redundancy. The Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, has already made it known that the lack of productivity in the public service, compared to Chinese businesses in the private sector, makes him uneasy and queasy.
Financial distress has turned Pohiva into a squirrel counting his pennies and cross-examining MPs and public requests for the state’s scanty stash. Who can blame him with the burden of feeding an unpleasantly overweight bureaucracy?
Will Pohiva’s government roll out redundancies? No one knows for sure given his administration has fifteen months to go. What is certain is that the Prime Minister after Pohiva will have to deal with the escalating problem of trimming the fat by cutting down on the number of civil servants.
The other public awareness raiser struck off the media radar is identifying which MPs won’t be returning at the next election. Because here’s the thing: who represents the poor? If there are no MPs elected to the 2018 to 2022 parliament with genuine experience of life at the lower-rung of Tonga’s social and economic ladder, then that exclusion reproduces blatant inequality and class discrimination.
The snag is, Tongan voters hesitate to elect grassroots candidates whose loyalty base pulls from the poorest and most vulnerable communities. An exception to the rule is Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, which is why he’ll retain the vote of poor and disenfranchised people until he decides it’s time to bow out of politics.
It’s doubtful anyone will make that decision for him. Be serious: who’s done thirty years hard labour as a reputable grassroots activist living in Tonga to knock him out in the 2018 election ring?
The likely scenario is he’ll retire as the undefeated heavy-weight champion MP. Pohiva’s footprint in the Pacific region? He held on to the majority vote for his electorate longer than any parliamentarian in his country’s history. And he did this by aligning his politics with the people who are placed at the bottom of Tonga’s class structure.
As for the political party he established, the Democratic cabinet ministers rode his back and public reputation into government. None so much as his son-in-law, Police Minister Mateni Tapueluelu. They owe him their allegiance, and he knows how to call it up.
Which brings us to the rifts between Tonga’s social and political factions that have hardened in recent months. In all honesty, the public broadcaster and some local outlets seem to have lost sight of the breadth, depth, and intricacy of political research and reporting.
It’s as if world news has been erroneously narrowed down to a pet gripe with the Prime Minister over Nanise Fifita not getting her contract renewed as general manager of the TBC (Tonga Broadcasting Commission).
We’re not saying journalists shouldn’t poke hard questions at the government, and scrutinise the Prime Minister for his decisions as a check-and-balance on procedure and power. They must. Ideally, media serves an essential role in a democratic country by informing the public of facts and correct information.
What we are saying, however, is anti-government journalism has failed to override the government narrative for specific reasons. Plainly, political reporting isn’t characterised by a single incident, as in Fifita’s situation. Nor is it defined by one interview the Prime Minister gave to Radio New Zealand in which he blurted out the Tonga Broadcasting Commission is “an enemy of the government.”
Of course opposition MPs, especially the nobles who’re in a long-running battle with Pohiva, will embellish the TBC squabbling with the Prime Minister to reporters. It’s a media opportunity to convince the public of their manoeuvring to remove Pohiva and his government. That’s politics.
But the treachery is, when journalists assist the opposition’s story without critically weighing up their motives, they can mistakenly minimise the real issue. Which in this case, was that the government had planned to privatise state assets by selling 49% of the public broadcaster as means to avert financial collapse.
Facts matter: here’s some forgotten facts in a nutshell. Pohiva’s regime inherited a growing trade deficit from former administrations. Feleti Sevele and Lord Tu’ivakano’s governments had grumbled about public enterprises running at a decades-old loss, which buried Tonga deeper in debt at the end of each financial year.
Earlier in May this year, TBC board chair ‘Ahongalu Fusimalohi complained to Koro Vaka’uta in a Radio New Zealand interview that the public broadcaster “has been static over the past five years, more or less insolvent, and the company needs a major overhaul.”
Fusimalohi’s line of reasoning was repeated by Prime Minister Pohiva to local and international news outlets. He accentuated to Radio New Zealand and Radio Australia that for ten years TBC had run at a loss, requiring increased state funding just to keep it manned and operational.
But the grounds he gave weren’t critiqued by the media, or debated in parliament. If anything, the subject was side-lined. Why?
For media, it opened up a can of worms on government cut backs in Australia and New Zealand’s public broadcasters for the same rationale that Pohiva was applying in Tonga. National budget constraints meant slashing state services.
For opposition MPs, the nobles are conservative, as expected in wanting to preserve the class system and structural hierarchy.
As a political bloc, the nobility leans right in their collective politics. They’ve demonstrated this by endorsing Lord Tu’ivakano as Tonga’s Prime Minister for the 2010 to 2014 term for an obvious reason. It is their parliamentary role to back a noble-led government and oppose a people’s led government.
Their economic partialities? Growing private sector business through foreign business investment, aid, and open-market trade is integral to what they believe, practice, and stand for.
That being the case, it’s doubtful they’d propose the government budget spend copious amounts of money on a public broadcaster, which hasn’t generated revenue to break even.
The thing is, Tonga’s privatisation trajectory was predetermined for the Pohiva government by the country’s integration into a global economy under the past two regimes of Sevele and Tu’ivakano.
Given the state’s stressed finances, cabinet is fixed on economic viability. The nightmare is fathoming how to get a clunky, inefficient, wasteful bureaucracy to curtail unnecessary spending and cut-out all forms of corruption. Limited resources have to be maximised in projects and services for public benefit, as stipulated in Tonga’s national strategic development plan.
On the TBC sale, Matangi Tonga reported that Pohiva ruled out “selling shares to the public.” Why the Tongan public was eliminated as shareholders, the Prime Minister wasn’t saying.
The Prime Minister said the government is not in favour of selling shares to the public, and they had yet [to decide] whom they might sell the shares to and for how much. He said that they should be able to make a decision this week.
Pohiva is definitely caught between a rock and a hard place. There’s not much chance of deflecting cost-effective reality: to privatise or not to privatise the TBC.
Danyl McLaughlin wrote for The Spinoff that politics nowadays is “about litigating the balance between the state and the market.”
Whatever your estimation of Pohiva’s leadership, his cabinet has come to grips with McLaughlin’s truth by admitting the state can’t afford to carry the financial loss of ministries and public enterprises. Something’s got to give.
In saying that, government has to be clued-up in taking every precaution to ensure they have the upper hand as the 51% shareholder. If 49% shares go to Digicel, will the company demand seats on the TBC board, and how will that change the public broadcaster’s business to strictly a commercial, profit-driven enterprise?
The negotiating document is the TBC Charter, which has to state clearly that the 49% shareholder agrees to upholding public broadcasting services. Maintaining shortwave radio to remote islands for meteorological and natural disaster warnings is the bone of contention for outer islands MPs and their electorates.
A lesson here for advocates of a free press is that endeavouring to shout down the Prime Minister and step out pro-government media outlets, which have a direct line of communication with the Prime Minister’s Office, doesn’t yield encouraging results. Journalists might want to rethink their tactics and take a critical view of the big picture in context.
A cutting question to ask is why do the Prime Minister’s “crazy stories,” to quote media operator Kalafi Moala, continue to dominate Tongan politics? To answer the question means studying his media strategy, and understanding why it holds up against fierce criticism, along with his shrewd political tactics in the parliamentary debates.
Over the years, journalists and academics have published and broadcasted a library on this career politician by portraying him as one of two characters – hero or villain. There’s no half-way reportage.
‘Akilisi Pohiva is revered or reviled, celebrated or censured, and he handles that quandary like a wily, expert tactician. Other Tongan MPs might fold under the stress. Let’s be honest: the home-grown politician tends to avoid fronting up to public disapproval to escape political death in a merciless pitiless environment, figuratively speaking.
Three decades of battle-scars disciplined Pohiva not to run or hide from his detractors, but to face any adversary head on. For the past two and half years as Tonga’s Prime Minister, his approval ratings have plummeted with the higher end of business owners, educated elites, nobles, royals and their supporters.
But these were sections of society who weren’t fond of him to begin with. Why would he count that as a loss?
‘Akilisi Pohiva, more so than his PM predecessors Feleti Sevele and Lord Tu’ivakano, has no qualms about making controversial decisions called into question if he believes he’s on a crusade for the good of the underprivileged.
His entire political career has been staged on pursuing a leftist agenda, which was hugely shunned to begin with, and then gathered momentum because he stubbornly stuck it out through years of public derision, and being despised by the middle and upper classes.
His political brand is the defender of democracy; an icon for ideals of equality, egalitarianism, and classlessness. Or conversely, he’s notorious; the lunatic radical leftist that traditional elites and conservatives want locked up, gagged, and tossed out permanently; the most dangerous destabilising force to the establishment.
Our point is, either way, accolades or insults fuel his public image. And if anyone’s responsible for creating a cult of personality around ‘Akilisi Pohiva, it’s the media and his opponents, not his allies and backers.
The alternative narrative that says Pohiva is a nonconforming dissident, is the one which opposition MPs and anti-government media have heavily invested in. But it’s given them little returns because it’s politically naïve.
Snubbed in some respects by the middle and upper classes, mainly educated and business elites, he’s made out to be an irrational and somewhat silly Prime Minister, propped up by people at the lower social tier.
A Prime Minister who has no respect for the law; is a law unto himself; and the boss of a cabinet of outlaws and bandits, so the story goes.
Such a crude depiction founded on class discrimination is destined to fail at subverting his support-base of poor and vulnerable communities.
In fact, what it does is seriously undermine the basic civil freedom to have “different beliefs or values” from those pointing the finger at others and saying they’re “irrational,” “crazy,” and “silly” – which are all things Pohiva has been called in public.
Danyl McLaughlin for The Spinoff explained this point clearly.
Often when someone tells you that ‘people aren’t rational’ what they’re really saying is that they, an educated and smart person, is rational, while everyone else – especially those with different beliefs or values – is ignorant and irrational. But this is a delightfully irrational way to think about human decision-making.
Recapping why the anti Pohiva tactic has backfired, Claire Timperley conveys an insightful reason.
Many citizens recognise the importance of the politics of presence and that Parliament – and government – should not exclude those who have not experienced the security of a middle-class upbringing.
Fact: democracy is partisan politics, and MPs in every democratic country in the world are expected to represent a place in the spectrum of left, centre, or right politics. If MPs don’t know where they’re located, they shouldn’t be employed as parliamentarians, period.
As Catherine Delahunty, retired leader of New Zealand’s Green Party warned: “This MP job is for grown-ups, not shallow gamblers.”
The position that MPs take – left, centre, or right, is important because it’s allied to social and class groups whom they represent.
The truly dreadful thing is that some people are wanting to exclude the Prime Minister from government and parliament because he has “not experienced the security of a middle-class upbringing.”
What they really mean is he’s not a conservative politician fixed at centre-right, like Prime Ministers before him.
And that’s where we’ve got to draw the line: on discriminatory politics. For the simple reason that when the door to class favouritism recklessly swings open in a fragile democracy, bigotry rears its ugly head.
Prejudice fabricates a false belief that only one class of people can govern over state and society. The other categories, namely working class and underclass, are not tolerated or accepted.
Our criticism has a different take. We’ve maintained that ‘Akilisi Pohiva is an embarrassment to the left. His policies and decisions swing left and right with such startling rapidity, it conflicts and confuses the people, not to mention his core business of governing the country.
As Tonga’s Prime Minister, he hasn’t given precedence to development policies for society’s fringe dwellers that voted for him and his Democratic Party MPs. He hasn’t stuck steadfastly to his party manifesto.
He hasn’t shown undeniably that his government stands for the elimination poverty, and levelling the class structure so there is fairer wealth distribution for all Tongans.
He hasn’t staunchly advocated that every human being is equal, and the state will not pander to the top income bracket, the minority percentage of Tongan society, at the expense of the majority of ordinary citizens.
He hasn’t proven his government will reform a corrupt state system of grossly disproportionate power.
Herman Melville argued this case, no holds barred.
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.
It is preposterous that the well-off in any parliament disparage the “habits of the poor.” And it’s appalling for anyone in this day and age to sneer at the constitutional right of the poor to elect parliamentarians from their communities to represent their interests.
What’s even more preposterous is that Pohiva hasn’t made the livelihoods and advancement of Tonga’s poorest and most vulnerable his pressing goal in government.
In failing to reduce poverty by mobilising Tongans into agricultural trade – the one industry that delivers food security for poor families, he and his ministers have cultivated a shallow parliament resembling an echo chamber, where the same small assemblage of arguments are regurgitated and recycled.
Making sense of Pohiva’s political behaviour requires clear-cut journalism without the social baggage of wanting him to abort politics because it’ll make reporting easier to have a Prime Minister that doesn’t contest media coverage.
Feleti Sevele challenged news reporters when he didn’t agree with their views on his premiership and government. So did Lord Tu’ivakano when he headed the last administration. Why the pandemonium with Pohiva at the helm?
By this, a fundamental query can’t be discounted. That is, what’s the election strategy that has won ‘Akilisi Pohiva his Tongatapu #1 seat for three decades?
On this subject, Jason Kander, a leftist Democrat who contested the Senate in Missouri – a conservative Republican state, answered correctly.
The key to winning electoral victories is unapologetic progressivism, nothing less. Voters will forgive you for believing something that they don’t believe so long as they know you truly believe it. Democrats [should] make their argument to absolutely everyone.
And there it is: “unapologetic progressivism, nothing less.” Because if “you truly believe” the best political system for Tonga is a full democracy of MPs elected by the people, which Pohiva does, then voters will respect that these are your principles. For thirty years he hasn’t faltered on his core political belief, ever.
To ignore, crush, or impede this difficult national conversation from happening in free and fair debate is systematic repression, a harmful measure which supporters of the 2010 political reform stood up to change.
Our concluding thoughts? Tonga’s political climate has engineered incredible division and conflict. The population at home and overseas is plagued by a pervasive condition in that cliques suffer high-levels of toxicity toward political opinions and allegiances different from their own.
Inside the country, people are anxiously positioned at a crossroad. They’re looking for new direction to a much healthier destination, where at the very least, Tongan parents aren’t living in fear that they may not be able to feed their children.
In many ways since the Pohiva administration commenced in 2014, the circuit breaker to circumvent a complete power failure in parliament and government has been Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni. For one reason above others, he represents a moderate centrist leader from the people’s representatives able to offer Tongans a third way.
And they definitely deserve a third way. That is, a reliable safe alternative to getting snared in the uncompromising politics of the nobility’s conservatism clashing with Pohiva’s progressivism.
The disappointing outcome is this long-running battle has, from last century to this century, stifled the growth and development of new ideas and intellectual capital, along with innovative and inspiring leadership from the people’s ranks.
By no means are we suggesting noble and opposition MPs shouldn’t argue against the government. Rather, the role of parliament is to legislate. When bills and budgets are left to the last minute, the public witness a mad rush by MPs to get the legislating done and dusted.
And then they’re out of parliament’s sitting for the year doing goodness knows what work for their constituencies and the country. Where’s the accountability to citizens and voters here?
Explaining “the third way,” Danyl McLaughlin condensed its logic in Western democratic countries. However, it’s also an idea Pacific leaders adopt for regionalism when they’re crafting policies to mitigate the challenges their small island developing states face as the world’s blue continent.
Most western democracies spent the past few decades trying to find a happy medium between the market and the state via the ‘third way’ in which the prosperity from the free markets funds large public sectors and welfare systems. Most successful political parties in the developed world embraced the third way. It felt like a sensible moderate solution.
It’s true that ‘Akilisi Pohiva has chartered Tonga’s domestic politics during his premiership. He’s made internal affairs his domain in government. But while he’s dictated this area, Sovaleni has navigated Tonga’s stakes in foreign affairs.
In particular, Sovaleni’s environmental politics on the regional stage underpinned by climate change, renewable energy, and natural disaster management, have produced positive outcomes for Tonga’s islands and people.
This has been no easy feat, considering domestic politics have bogged down the nation. More than anything, parliament’s scuffles over backward looking matters signify an obstinate refusal to settle on resolutions so the country and deteriorating economy can move forward.
And that’s to everyone’s detriment, especially the poor who suffer the most at the hands of politicians who do not fix poverty because they’re embroiled in bickering, backbiting, and backlash.
Recently opened by the Government of Tonga was the Pacific Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency based in Nuku’alofa. Sovaleni’s innovation in conjunction with the Pacific Community (SPC), it serves as the region’s clean energy hub for mobilising a target of 100% renewables in Pacific countries.
The irony is regional forums have ranked climate change at the top of the development list for Pacific countries. But little discussion has eventuated in parliament on government policies and activities in climate resilience and disaster preparedness.
Third way? Definitely the way to go for Tonga’s political leadership in sorting out “a happy medium between the state and the market.” Which effectively means, how to get private sector businesses investing in clean energy to assist the government to attain their objective of a 100% clean, green, blue economy.
Anticipated is that clean energy will be less expensive as well as safe for the environment, instead of polluting it with fossil fuels.
We should all be putting our efforts into achieving this national goal, don’t you think.
Tonga is privileged to host PCREEE (Pacific Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency) on behalf of the members of the Pacific Community. We are not only providing the office space and facilities, we are providing Tongan experts to support the initial technical expertise at the Centre. We will also make available our numerous renewable energy and energy efficiency projects on the ground for the research and training activities of the Centre and we are prepared to assist in the resource mobilisation effort of the Centre.”