Editor's Comment, by Pesi Fonua
What kind of government would Tongans like to have working for them following the 16 November election? It's evident that the new government, to be formed by the end of this year, has an enormous challenge ahead, because our elected leaders need to rescue Tonga from a “free-fall” situation that we have found ourselves in, after seven years under a system that has not met the public's expectations.
The answer is that we need to have a government that is both willing and able to advance Tonga's Democratic Reform Process that was set in motion in 2010 – or fear collapse into a backward slide.
Tonga needs a government that demonstrates democratic progress and value for money, reaped from taxpayers and foreign aid donors for running a parliament and providing government services.
The new Tongan parliamentary system that was introduced in 2010 has been described as a system where elected representatives of the people and the nobles gather and pass decisions by consensus, and not along party lines as found in foreign party systems.
Two successive governments, we have elected since 2010, have not been able to advance the democratization process, as promised in the political urging for change before then. Instead, they have been struggling to remain in operation amid the tabling of a failed Vote of No Confidence, and calls for impeachment of Cabinet Ministers.
If we were not aware of the vulnerable position that Tonga has found itself in, then a warning call was the sudden dissolution of Parliament by the King on 24 August this year. A Writ of Election set a date for a General Election, no later than 16 November. We were given 85 days to get ready for this snap election.
Although the Electoral Commission was working on changes to improve the electoral regulations, there have been no major changes to Tonga's election system for finding 17 People’s Representatives. With no changes to the simplistic single-round "first past the post" polling, there is nothing to make us believe that there may be changes in the attitudes of candidates or voters on November 16. This is inevitable when you have many candidates competing for a share of the votes locked into each of 17 tiny constituencies. The largest constituency, Tongatapu 3, has only 4,144 people of voting age, while the smallest, Ongo Niua, has ony 663 people of voting age according to the 2016 census. Only four constituencies have over 4,000 people of voting age and not all have registered to vote.
The only thing that we can be certain of is that we will get more of the same. In the last two governments, some of the new Members of Parliament won seats supported by a minority of voters in their constituencies. When voters spread their votes over many competing candidates, it means that the winner can be "first past the post" with only a few hundred votes. When this happens, we are left with an unhappy situation where a majority of voters in the constituencies did not vote for the person who represents them in parliament.
Any of the 17 newly elected People's Representatives and nine Nobles Representatives may be nominated for the job of Prime Minister. The members make their own choice from among themselves after the General Election.
However, there has been a significant change recently to the process for choosing MPs for the nine Nobles seats. Life Peers in this coming election may now be elected as Nobles Representatives to the Tongan Parliament. Nobles hold a separate election among themselves
Among the five life peers are four former government ministers, a former Prime Minister, and a former judge. All have professional qualifications and experience that is not found among the traditional nobles. It appears that the electoral change was made with the prospect of having one or more of these life peers enter the House.
In Tongatapu, Lord Dalgety, Lord Tupou and Lord Sevele are among the 17 men who are eligible for the three Tongatapu Nobles seats and one 'Eua noble's seat.
In Vava’u, Lord Tangi and Lord Matoto are among the 10 nobles eligible for the two Vava'u noble's seats
If, by any chance, some of these professionally experienced life peers enter Parliament, possibly joining the Cabinet, their contributions to Tonga’s democratization process would be noticeable.
Meanwhile, for the People's seats it would take a major shift in the mind-set of voters to change from choosing candidates who have the loudest horns in their neighborhoods, to choosing People’s Representatives who might reliably address matters of national importance and provide honest national leadership
There is no shortage of seriously challenging national issues facing Tonga's people, from the state of the economy, to health, to education, to the environment, while addressing poverty, lawlessness and lack of opportunity, and finding a way to advance democratic process, accountability and national pride.
Tonga is sinking because during the past seven years we have not been able to find solutions to many entrenched problems. Now parliament has been dissolved and Tongan voters are being asked to make a fresh attempt to choose capable representatives and leaders from their communities.
If we do not vote into the House members who can form an effective government, then the longer it takes to find a path forward, the worse the problems become. A need for solutions has never been more urgent.
It's clear that following the 2017 General Election, Tonga needs a government that sets its prime objectives to address national interests, as well as better communicating the needs of the constituencies into constructive lawmaking.
It's good also to remember when going to the polls on Thursday November 16, that the major responsibility of MPs is the drafting of legislation and the welfare of the nation as a whole. Tonga needs clear and active vision in order to arrest its fall.