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Public Participation needs structure

New South Wales,Australia


I take note of your editorial comment on "public participation" and as mentioned, this principle is one of the pillars of a democratic form of government. It is fundamental to the system as a form of "empowerment", demanding the populace to exercise their "individual rights" to voice their thinking on issues which may directly or indirectly affect their wellbeing. Lack of "public participation" is an issue faced by all democratic system of government.

The irony is that democratic form of governments traditionally finds it easier to manage the society and thus operate the system based on the voice of the active minority. The situation in Tonga as stated in your commentary is neither new nor different. However, the danger to democracy is when the active minority translates the "lack of participation" as an instrument to disregard the interest of the silent majority. As there are reasons for one being politically active, equally, there are reasons for one not being active. One may be dissatisfied with his life circumstances, linked it government policies and decision making and choose to be politically active to influence the process in his favour. The other may be satisfied with his life situation linked to the same policies and choose to leave the process of decision making as it is. What we have to be aware of is the fact that both have constitutional guaranteed rights to make their respective choice.

With our social culture still operate very much at the emotional mode in relation to decision-making; I am not surprise at the apparent reluctant of our people to participate in any form of consultation. However, the reasons that you have raised are part of it. To take us from the "fono" public dialogue (where people are being told of decisions that has already been made) to "public consultation" intended for meaningful dialogue seeking feedback and individual opinion, will take a lot of time and resource for proper civic education. Although civic education can be included in the curriculum at all level, a broad community based approach will be needed for the general public.

This broader community approach needs an infrastructure to link the government to the populace and that is where Local Government comes in. The sad thing is, after hundred years of our current form of government, we have not been able to establish the infrastructure to facilitate the use these methods of public dialogue. That is our Local Government level has not even been adapted in structure and functional capacity after hundred years to facilitate proper communication, and share of tasks and responsibility between the people and government. Without this infrastructure, canvassing public opinion or public consultation as needed for any form of governance remains an illusive dream. Unfortunately this is exactly what should have been in place before we progress at any length toward a Parliamentarian form of government as proposed by the PRs. The issue regarding "public participation" may not be the "will to participate" but whether we have put in place the infrastructure to facilitate constructive public participation at the grass root level. In that case, the answer is NO.

If we take the public consultation by the Ministry of Police as mentioned in your editorial as a paradigm case then any meaningful feedback from the public will amount to; firstly, how can they be protected from police misuse of their authority? And secondly, they need more police which is a resource issue. This is a social concern, and well within the domain of this form of public consultation. The first is a call for a corruption management strategy within the ministry. To establish an investigative and reporting mechanism where the Police is not the first port of call is a likely outcome. The second is a budget and resource issue at the administration level, where the public has no influence but needs to be informed.

The issue of police structure and management, "public consultation" is the wrong tool for such dialogue. This a professional issue. The paramount focus of such consultation is "training". How can we device a training program for police to deal with two main issues: (i) professional training program that weed out the undesirable elements in social and cultural packages (fakafeitu...’u, fakasiasi, fakakaungame...’a, fakaako etc) that each recruit brings with him/her to the force. (ii) Physical and psychological program to identify the unsuitable candidate during the training process. (iii) the administrative aspect of the profession demanding higher skills level.

The Constitutional and Electoral Commission calls for public submissions and recommendation to changes in the constitution and the electoral act is a clear case of "they (parliamentarians) have already made up their mind". If we carefully examine the Legislation for this commission, this call for public consultation is a good example of a rubber-stamp case, for the following reasons:

(i) The catch-call for the commission to the public is the term "independent". Independent Commission for constitution and electoral reform. However, the term "independent" is omitted from the title of the commission in the legislation. One expects a key term to the act in Section 2 (Definitions). It is narrowly defined in Section 5 (2) as an escape clause, which in effect restricted the proposal they should consider as listed in Section 5 (1), and the content of these proposal and recommendations to Schedule 2 of the Act. The Parliament has already decided on the outcome of the enquiry.

(ii) Furthermore, the time limit set by the Act on Schedule 3 is 10 months from "date of the appointment" is a clear manifestation of a Parliament out of touch with reality. Everything should be in place for the Election of 2010. Can the will of the people of Tonga be canvassed in a public enquiry, public meeting and constitutional convention in a space of 10 months? This is an unrealistic demand on members of the Commission.

But beside the breach of "individual right", the dictatorial demand by Parliament, the limitation of scope (exclusively political), this piece of legal blunder have denied Overseas Tongans as Tongan subjects their "collective right" to be included and take part in this process of public consultation. Excluded by Section 4 (2)(d) and Section 9 (1)(a) of the Act.

In fact, Public Consultation is one of the most "abused" concept by Public Institutions in modern times. Its counterpart in the non-government sector is the use of "survey". Both are good and effective instruments if the parameters and scope of its application are well stated and adhered to, and so are their limitations. Unfortunately, when these instruments are deliberately employed to mislead the public it can be as effective. Applied to issues with strong political tone, the parameters, scope and limitation of application as usual are not stated. The shortcomings have tarnished the use by date of both and relegate them to "rubber-stamp" status and in most cases such as this one, exactly what they are used for. Thus, the mere mention of these two methods, with all good intentions, always triggered a domino effect of public apathy.


'Inoke Fotu Hu'akau

inokefotu [at] 2000fm [dot] com