By Pesi Fonua
The true colours of Tonga's People's Representatives came to light during the debate in Tonga's quest for a new and more democratic system of government. After all the talk about democracy and an elected house they didn't want to get involved in the hard work of thinking how such a system might work.
At the end, the People's Representatives contributed very little to the structuring of the proposed new system of Government that the Tongan parliament approved before it closed for Christmas on the morning of December 18.
The notion of a fully elected house, where members elect a Prime Minister; and the Prime Minister selects his Cabinet, has captured the popular imagination of power to the people.
But during the process of trying to structure a system from such a small house, the most vociferous proponents of this so-called "pro-demo" theory were the first to admit that it would not work.
They were talking about a house structured from 17 members elected by the people and nine members elected by the 33 nobles.
In a move, perhaps, to shift the blame to the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission if the new system fails, the PRs - even before the debate started on the report - called a Press Conference to announce that they had embraced all the 82 recommendations that were proposed by the Commission.
At this stage, it was as though the PRs had washed their hands on the reform process. They had made their contribution known that they wanted a fully elected parliament, and from here on it was for the Commission and the government to structure a system.
During the last night of the debate in the House, December 17-18 over the commission's report and recommendations, the Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele told the House that the pro-demo PRs had expressed to him their concern that none among them has the quality to be a Cabinet Minister, and had asked that if the PM and his Cabinet were to resign, who then would run the country.
The Prime Minister also told the House that the President of the pro demo movement, Rev. Simote Vea, had also expressed to him the same sentiment.
Those expressions showed that the prolonged and repeated debate by the PRs over the Commission's report was a farce, and that the overtime debate on reform can be seen as simply a campaign for the next election.
The situation did not get any better, when PR 'Akilisi Pohiva supported the recommendation by the Commission for Tonga to have a Minority system of government with only 10 Cabinet Ministers. He said that 10 was enough because ministers, "do very little but drinking coffee."
Clive Edwards disagreed with the Minority Government idea. He recalled when he was a Cabinet Minister, the Minister of Police, and how at one stage he held about 21 portfolios, which he thought was outrageous, particularly if the intention of the reform was to improve the work of government. He disagreed with the limiting of Cabinet Ministers to only 10.
No by-election for PRs
At this point in the debate the status of the PRs in the House had deteriorated and any hope of them attracting support from either the nobles or cabinet ministers was vanishing.
The irony of the situation was that back in June the House passed legislation that if elected members are made Cabinet Ministers there will be no by-election to fill their seats. But not so if an elected member is appointed as a governor when there will be a by-election.
So when Noble Luani was appointed as the new Governor of Vava'u on July 1, there was a by-election and Noble Fulivai was elected as a replacement noble's representative.
Following the by-election PR Teisino Fuko expressed a concern that it seemed that there were more nobles coming into the house so their numbers are increasing but the people are under-represented
But 'Akilisi responded that there was no use talking about it, they had already passed the legislation
So not long afterwards when two PRs were appointed as Cabinet Ministers - Sione Teisina Fuko on October 29 and Samiu Vaipulu on November 10 - of course, there was no by-election to fill their PR seats.
It was naive to think that Samiu and Teisina would vote alongside the PRs. Their alliance had shifted and, of course, they supported the government.
If the PRs had intended to oppose government in any way then it was two less votes for the PRs at a critical time of decision making in the Tongan parliament, and more importantly a demonstration of how the people might be under-represented.
The PRs appeared to have lost the plot and their composure, and they have been totally outnumbered in the House. That was why they did what they did, prolonged the debate with trivial repetition, abstaining from voting at all.
'Akilisi after debating aggressively in support of the Commission's Recommendation for only 10 Cabinet Ministers, then moved a motion in support of the recommendation, but when the Speaker called for votes, no one raised a hand, not even 'Akilisi.
The table of the PRs was fragmenting as the debate continued, to the point there were only four, 'Isileli Pulu, 'Akilisi Pohiva, 'Uliti Uata and 'Etuate Lavulavu.
They were out-manoeuvred, out-smarted and out-numbered, and instead of the people having a majority in the new parliament, it is clear they will be a minority - because a majority of the elected members will become Cabinet Ministers, (the executive) and we have already witnessed what happened when an elected member becomes a Cabinet Minister, the alliance and vote shifted.
Move for change
Tonga began to take firm commitments toward structuring a new system of government after the Tongan parliament passed a Bill for the formation of the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission Act on July 23 2008.
An impetus for Tonga's political reform process was a statement from the king's office before the coronation on August 1, 2008, stating the willingness of the king to surrender some of his executive power in Privy Council to a Cabinet to be made up of elected members of the Tongan Parliament.
With legislation in place and with the blessing of the king, the reform process was rolling.
A five-members Commission: Chief Justice Gordon Ward, appointed by Cabinet as chairman; Hon. Vaea appointed by the Nobles' Representatives; Dr Sitiveni Halapua appointed by the People's Representatives; and Dr 'Ana Maui Taufe'ulungaki and Sione Tu'itavakie Fonua, were appointed by the Judiciary Commission. The Commission met for the first time and started working on January 5, 2009, mandated to present an interim report to the Privy Council and to the Legislative Assembly by June 5.
When King George Tupou V opened parliament on May 28, 2009, he further elaborated on his willingness for the Privy Council to surrender its authority to a Cabinet formed by the Prime Minister from elected members of the House. He said that two years was ample time to structure a new system for Tonga.
Lack of public participation
The Commission's June 5 Interim Report did not include any recommendations due to a lack of public participation, and a lack of written submissions. The Commission called for more submission and also expressed its concern over the shortage of time to put a new system of government in place before the November-December 2010 election.
Five months later on November 5 the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission released its final report with recommendations on how the Tongan government and the Tongan parliament might structure a new and more democratic system of government.
With the PRs opting to embrace all the recommendations of the Commission, they had very little to offer to the structuring process of the new government. In the end the House terminated 19 recommendations, passed 18, and also passed 45 that the government amended.
Now the government will proceed to draft legislation and the boundary commission will established to form new constituencies to get ready for the next election.