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First vote of no confidence, a costly distraction

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

From the House, by Pesi Fonua

A move by ten members of the Tongan parliament to topple Tonga's first majority-elected government with a Motion for a Vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano, on June 18, has plunged Tongan politics into its most unstable state, since the political maneuvering by some politicians with a similar intention resulted in the mindless burning of the Nuku'alofa Central Business District on November 16, 2006.

The goings-on in the Tongan parliament during the past few weeks have not only taken the parliament's attention away from the difficulty of financing government operations, and the struggles of its people in an economic recession, but has also been a very costly exercise for the House.

When parliament reconvenes on Monday, August 20, to restart their debate on the Motion for a Vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister, the House will have already spent 21 and a half working days on the motion, which has cost taxpayers an estimated $362,812 pa'anga for the salaries of members of parliament and the cabinet ministers, not counting the other costs of running the parliament during that time.

In the House there appears to be a misunderstanding of the significance of the convention of a Motion for a Vote of No Confidence, as it is used by parliaments fashioned under the Westminster parliamentary system. It is a safety valve that can be used in a major failure of leadership where, for example, the government might have put the sovereignty of the state at stake; or at the very least, where those who presented the motion present themselves to be a more credible government (in a multi-party system of government, the opposition party).

The first record of a vote of no confidence occurred in the United Kingdom in 1782, immediately after the British defeat in the American colonies at Yorktown, USA. The then British Prime Minister Lord North presented his resignation to King George III. This was, of course, 230 years ago, but in modern times it has been documented that votes of no confidence have been rare occurrences, as members of parliament tend to try to personally resolve their differences, rather than having to waste a lot of parliamentary working hours in resolving what are essentially personal differences.

Costly exercise

In Tonga, the Motion for a Vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister that was presented by ten members of parliament was historical in that it was the first such motion to be presented to its parliament. But the reasons for the motion, clearly, do not warrant such a costly exercise by any measure.

The total fortnightly pay packets of the House for members who are not cabinet ministers amounts to $55,000 for eight days sitting in the House.

The total fortnightly salaries for the Cabinet, out of their own ministerial allocations amounts to $80,000.

Unless the movers of the motion withdraw their motion, or unless someone else moves a motion to throw out the motion for a vote of no confidence, Tongan taxpayers will continue to pay parliamentarians thousands of pa'anga simply to go and rewrite their motion so that it can have some real meaning in it for the House to vote on.

While the country has mass unemployment and exports are scarce, Tonga continues to rely on overseas aid to balance its national budget, and it definitely does not make sense to watch our parliamentary representatives continue to play silly political games offering shallow complaints for a motion for a vote of no confidence, and now trying to rewrite it.


Another difficulty is that the Tongan parliament has no rules of procedure for a motion for a vote of no confidence. The concept was slotted into the new system of government that was introduced with the parliamentary election at the end of 2010 without a clearly defined procedure.

Presumably, the logic was for the new parliament to continue to refine the reformed system of government. But the members of parliament who are behind the motion - the very people who drafted and voted for the reform - are now, 18 months later, demonstrating that they have other ideas. A motion for a vote of no confidence to topple a government, will distract public attention from their inability to face up to the reality that we are increasingly relying on foreign aid donors for our very existence. 

By August 20 when parliament will reconvene to hear written arguments of supporters of the motion, there is a possibility that the House will spend five or six more days listening to the responses from members, and possibly another four more days of debate before they, hopefully will come to a final decision. 


I must say if proper advice was sought at the time of the changes it is clear that anyone who wishes to move a motion of no confidence must first obtain leave of the assembly.
IF leave is granted by the legislative assembly then the vote of no confidence can proceed seven days after such a petition is presented to the speaker. It should not be proceeded with on the motion of one or even a number of members of the assembly but only on the granting of leave by a majority of the assembly.
It would be relatively straight forward for the Attorney to draft the appropriate provisions.
kind regards to you
john cauchi