The situation in Tonga is precarious. As the Minister of Finance is feverishly trying to bounce the economy back with ambitious policies, the Prime Minister and Parliamentarians look for equilibrium in opposite directions, which explains the same old arguments, same old excuses and lack of domestic achievements.
The People’s Representative, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, has tirelessly agitated government that successfully gets him elected to parliament as the number one representative of Tongatapu, the largest and most densely populated of all the island groups. But while his sparkling political energy made him very popular with the people, it is claimed that it also stirred up the angry passions of a few minorities who reduced the Nuku’alofa business district to a pile of rubble on November 2006 and subsequently fractured the pro-democracy movement.
While Pohiva and four other People Representatives (PRs), Clive Edwards, ‘Isileli Pulu (Tongatapu), Uliti Uata (Ha’apai) and Lepolo Taunisila (Niuas) are being charged with sedition and crimes relating to the riot (better known as 16/11) while carrying out their parliamentarian duties, the Prime Minister, Dr. Feleti Sevele, has exacerbated the discord of political tension by treating these PRs and pro-democracy as dangerous enemies to the peace of the nation. Needless to say, the PRs have since 16/11 found it hard to maintain their lustre and it is affecting their ability to communicate or to do anything meaningful or with substance. At the same time, Dr. Sevele has crushed any lingering hope for effective dialogue towards an already moribund reconciliation process by unremorsefully announcing in parliament that there would be no reconciliation until the PRs apologize for their crime on 16/11. More than likely, Dr. Sevele wants to be referee and player at the same time. Dr. Sevele also goes out of his way to display government’s strength not only by encouraging repressive media excluding dissident voices and making its journalists more bias towards government, he continues to enforce emergency powers for nearly 9 months now since the riot.
The continuing emergency powers adds to the mounting anxiety and frustration and while we all agree that it minimizes blighting influences, it punishes the majority who were not involved in the riot. Most, if not all, businesses that were affected by the riot are still in business though operating from different locations. Government reporting of its revenue and GDP due to the riot needs to be re-examined. But Dr. Sevele has been consistent in blaming the PRs and pro-democracy for the riot hence the failure to fill the chasm between government and the PRs. Dr. Sevele, once a proponent of political reform has proven to be an honest politician after all - when he is bought by the King, he stays bought.
With the obsessive and biased rhetoric from government on the riot, the support for the PRs has shown to be languishing while the subject of political reform has grown to be as ominous as the war on terror. It would be foolish for the PRs and pro-democracy to hope for too much in political reform but it would be foolish too to do too little. Compromises may seem hard to fashion at this time but sacrificing for the positive good of the people is a valuable stimulus. There is no better time than now for the PRs to redefine what they stand for and break it down to bite sizes and start addressing them effectively. May be Tonga is not worthy of democracy at this time but that is something for the people to decide. What must be done? Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US President is the one who said “a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall”. Rather than the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and PRs being hostile to each other, they should reason with each other, find more constructive ways to work on what is most important to the nation and its people. They should acknowledge they are all part of the problems and they are all part of the solutions. True leadership is delivering value to the people that will help change the equations of their lives - for the better.
The ongoing economic challenges with Shoreline leave government trapped in a quandary. If the King has any plan for political change, he is unlikely to make them until Shoreline is sold on his own terms. The King may not support his people when it comes to Shoreline, but one thing for sure, he does not pretend to be and he does not promise to be. At the same time, political reform process through the government’s Tripartite committee is a sign that the King and Dr. Sevele are expanding the scope of participation in an orderly way but are in no rush for any political change. If they do, they want it in the same way Saint Augustine wanted chastity; not yet.
Government’s actions may be lacking in conviction, but it is not lacking in tactics to deliver new policies such as tax reform, customs bill, accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), forming economic development council to develop strategies for private/public partnership and workshops to stop global warming.
Climate change is no longer an avant-garde. It is taking hold with series of recent dramatic events highlighting its dangerous effect especially in developing countries. But Tonga’s impact on global warming is so miniscule which gives Tonga the advantage of playing the waiting game on developing renewable energy. China, Europe, the United States and India have the most negative environmental impacts on the planet. California is the sixth largest economy in the world therefore impacting global warming at the same rate.
Change is in the air. The United States, Europe and China are embracing global warming and they have no choice but to start greening. London is a city ahead in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. California on the other hand is taking the lead with its ambitious Global Warming Solution Acts that passed last year tackling greenhouse emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. Companies such as Alcoa, Caterpillar, Exxon Mobil and DuPont are accepting that change is in the air and since they produce clouds of emissions, they would influence future legislation. The point is, not only it is better to wait than tarred with failure, but the Tongan government can do better in their deliberate process by employing self-preservation and responsible management of natural resources (land and ocean), restoring confidence and respect and creating positive social and economic changes. Tonga can later adopt renewable energy measures that work well for Tonga and in the meantime, let Europe, the United States, China and India who can afford to taker bolder steps in mitigating global warming be the environmental stewardship.
China is the biggest environmental player on the planet with a profound negative impact on the global environment. Fortunately, Tonga does not have 800 million or so population that is struggling to become part of the Chinese middle class but Tonga with its 100,000 or so population, the same issues such as poverty and joblessness exist that in the end, Tonga will continue to depend on foreign aid and remittance. Thanks to tens of thousand Tongans living overseas, they continue to send remittances to their relatives in Tonga but that too will diminish as future Tongan generations living abroad adopt a different system and lifestyle. Lack of political and economic incentives for the people living in Tonga to do the right thing can contribute to utterly failed implementation of these ambitious policies.
Last week, government established a committee to develop new regulations, initiatives and laws on renewable energy while ignoring the most environmental problems experiencing by its people today such as access to clean water, outbreak of diseases, pollution from traffic congestion, density and land use to name a few. Rather than renewable energy measure, government can educate the public on self-preservation, conservations, responsible management of natural resources (land and ocean), and partner with landowners who want to harvest the financial intrinsic value of their land.
Building Tonga and redefining its landscape towards sustainability requires prioritizing projects that will have short and long term benefits. Tonga is not going to be successful in measures to stop global warming if they continue to embrace many of the worst U.S. and Chinese practices such as having more cars on the road or building shiny new white boxes that will look horrible in a few years’ time due to shoddy construction. Government, instead of focusing on renewable energy, they should develop initiatives and legislations on land use such as recycling, brownfield reclamation, deforestation, toxic reduction, restoring native vegetation, and preservation. And in lieu of introducing higher taxes and penalizing good businesses, growing businesses and efficient businesses, government should introduce tax incentives and rebates on activities that mitigate global warming. Traffic congestion contributes to pollution especially in downtown Nuku’alofa. New urban planning for the downtown Nuku’alofa can incorporate a more pedestrian-friendly plan by investing on public transportation and streetscape that will help reduce automobile dependency. The solution to pollution is still dilution.
Tonga’s tropical climate makes Tonga far less harmful to the environment for all its buildings do not require significant energy load compared to what a 300,000 square foot building in the United States, Europe or China needs to function. Approximately 50 percent of environmental concern is in building performance and transportation is below 30 percent. The United States estimates the proceeds of somewhere around $15 billion over the next decade to fund renewable energy schemes. China, which is roughly the same size as the United States, has five of the ten most polluted cities in the world. China is adding on 200 billion square feet of floor space every year and spending 45 percent of its total energy on the construction, heating and cooling of these buildings but only 4 percent of China’s largest buildings have adopted energy-efficiency measures. The Chinese government, in particular the Ministry of Construction is pressuring developers in China to adopt green building standards but its success depends on having a proactive mayor and money. With the much debated loan from China and the reconstruction of Nuku’alofa to be performed by Chinese companies, the Tongan government must reason with the Chinese government to ensure that building materials meet the green building standards.
Government should continue to enforce the same standards on private and public projects. Solutions are simple if government uses rational, logical, common sense and doing-less-harm approach. Can the government do better? Yes, they must. Are they doing it? No, but they should.
The public servants strike in 2005 created an imbalance in government and the spirit of the people. The riot in 2006 presented Tonga with even more economic and political difficulties exposing the nation to total ruin. But all these events should be viewed as part of the fundamental development that could unite government and the people of Tonga to redefine Tonga’s political, economic and social landscape and what is meaningful to its people - in real time.
Revitalizing Nuku’alofa should be poised to become both greener and more urban. The destruction of the business district gives Tonga a perfect opportunity to create excellence. Tonga with intelligent, organic, responsible and sustainable development will distinguish itself from their neighboring islands. This will also help attract investments and increase the number of tourists. More than ever, it is about sustainability and future responsibility. These are evolving concepts that will not only build communities and change the quality of life, but will also create positive economic, social and environmental change. The King and Parliamentarians (both elected and appointed members) must work collaboratively to transform the way the people in Tonga live and inspire them to do the right thing that will give every child a meaningful experience for generations without increasing the burden on the taxpayers. Redefining the landscape of Tonga means developing people, community, infrastructure, a sense of place and renewing the peoples’ spirits through the beauty of Tonga.
There is no single answer or template solution but broader visions require longer horizons.
Mele Payne Lynch
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