By Pesi Fonua
The composition of the Tongan Cabinet has not been completed, “we are still working on it,” the Prime Minister Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva told a Press Conference that he called on Friday, 23 March.
The composition of the Cabinet became obscure following the March 2 resignation of Lord Ma’afu, the Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, and for His Majesty’s Armed Forces.
There was also public concern over the fact that there was no Minister of Lands to address public concerns over land issues.
For a number of times when Parliament was in session from March 5-14, Lord Nuku, the ‘Eua Nobles’ Representative to the Tongan Parliament reported to the House how land leases and mortgages were held up because there was no Minister of Lands. He even suggested for the Prime Minister to recall the former Minister for Lands.
At the Press Conference, the Prime Minister confirmed that he also holds the portfolios for Foreign Affairs, Lands and Natural Resources, and Defence (His Majesty’s Armed Forces).
With regards to the Minister of Lands issue, when the Prime Minister was asked why he insisted on having a Noble as a Minister for Lands, taking into account that among some of the major political changes introduced in 2010, was for a Minister for Lands to be an elected noble only during the first four years of a new government under the new political system.
When ‘Akilisi Pohiva became Tonga’s second elected Prime Minister at the end of 2014, he said that he felt that it was most appropriate for the Minister of Lands to be held by a noble, and that was why it had remained that way. However, he now had the time to read a report of the Land Commission and to see what was their recommendation.
With the Prime Minister also being the Minister of Defence, it is a very interesting set-up because Section 36 of the Tongan Constitution reads – “The King is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of Tonga. He shall appoint all officers and make such regulations for the training and control of the forces as he may think best for the welfare of the country but it shall not be lawful for the King to make war without the consent of the Legislative Assembly.”
With regards to the appointment of an Anti-Corruption Commissioner for Tonga. What is holding up the process?
The PM said that there was a Cabinet decision for the Ombudsman to be also the Anti-Corruption Commissioner, but the Privy Council had another idea. For the Privy Council to appoint the Anti-Corruption Commissioner, then for the Cabinet to look for the salary for that appointment, but there was a different of opinion over that and according to the PM, right now the Privy Council and the Cabinet were working on the issue.
On the issue of Trade, and how Tonga has signed the PACERPlus Trade Agreement, but there is a controversy over how Labour Movability is excluded from the Agreement. This is despite the fact that our only exports are our talented sports people and our fruit pickers.
The PM expressed his great concern over Tonga’s trade imbalance, with our massive imports, comparing with our very little exports. Unfortunately, he admitted that some of his Ministers favoured more imports, because import duties are one of the government's main sources of revenue.
The fact that we have an abundant of agricultural Products that growers are sitting on the side of the roads, desperately trying to sell. Why can’t we export our watermelons, talos, yams and other root crops to Fiji and Samoa?
Hon. Pohiva, a former Minister of Trade said that they have tried with shiploads of watermelon to Samoa twice, but the Samoans imposed a heavy import duty on our watermelon that the people could not afford to buy them. He said that the same thing with Fiji.
The Prime Minister admitted that after he signed the PACERPlus Trade Agreement, it was discovered to be inappropriate and now Tonga is no longer a signatary to the PACERPlus Trade Agreement.*
Debate hidden in committees
The final issue that was raised during the Press Conference with the PM was how the public was going to hear less of the debate in Parliament because debates now will be carried out in Standing Committees, and their final decisions would be tabled into the House to be voted on and passed.
Parliament is supposed to have 10 Standing Committees.
Lord Tu’i’afitu expressed his concern that there were very few meetings scheduled for parliament this year, no meetings during July and August, and that they would meet for only seven days in September.
The Minister for Finance and National Development, Hon. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, who accompanied the PM at the Press Conference, believed that it was the responsibility of the People's Representatives who are members of these Standing Committees to go back to their constituents and explain to the people what was debated in these Standing Committees.
The Prime Minister also believed that the involvement of the Standing Committees would speed up the work of the House.
*See also: Editor's Comment, Editor clarifies PACERPlus comment 3 April 2018.