From the House by Pesi Fonua
The announcement by the Speaker of the Tongan Parliament, Lord Fakafanua in Parliament on 16 August that the House is no longer funding the daily radio broadcast of the Proceedings of the House, surprised members of Parliament.
It was also a shocking announcement for members of the public who rely on the daily radio broadcasting and the publishing of the Minutes of the daily proceedings of parliament on the parliament's website.
The live broadcasts on the radio were disrupted during the week when the Auditor General's Report for 2020/2021 and 2021/ 2022 was returned to the House for debate. [*See Editor's note]
The Auditor's Report exposes a litany of weaknesses in many Ministries and reveals the wide extent of inadequate reporting of government expenditures. It raises concerns about government's recent capital expenditures, inadequate assets registers and discrepancies between the Sun System and Ministries financial reports. The report was presented to the Speaker by the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance on 15 August [Lipooti 3/23].
LIve broadcasting essential
Since the political reform of 2010, the live broadcasting of the proceedings of the House and the publishing of daily Parliamentary Minutes, were the most reliable source of information for the people to have a glimpse of what government is doing or not doing.
Lord Tu‘ivakano, a former Prime Minister and the Tongatapu no. 1 Nobles Representative, reminded the House that parliament is responsible for the public broadcasting of the proceedings of the House.
He also reminded the Speaker, “it was your grandfather who was responsible for [initiating] broadcasting the proceedings of the House!”
The People's Representative for ‘Eua, Dr Taniela Liku‘ohihifo Fusimalohi moved for the Minister of Finance to increase the Budget allocation of the House by a million pa’anga, to resume broadcasts of the proceedings of the House.
The proceedings of the House have been broadcasted live by the government’s Tonga Broadcasting Commission and a privately owned radio station 87.5FM, Broadcom Broadcasting, and both stations have ceased live broadcasting of parliament.
Particularly concerning is that the disruption of the broadcasting of the proceedings in the House became evident in the second week of August.
This was at a critical time during debate over controversial issues that will not now be broadcast, including questions by Members over the source of funding for the purchase of a new aircraft for the Lulutai Airlines.
The chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and Reports, Hon' Aisake Eke said the Auditor General's Report looks at the quarterly expenditures and revenues of government Ministries for the year 2021-22 and gives a qualified audit opinion.
The Auditor General's Annual Report lists many weaknesses in financial reporting by government that need to be fixed.
For starters, there are a lot of Ministries and government bodies that have not submitted full reports of their revenues and expenditures.
There are a lot of reports that the Auditor General sent back for improvement and that need to be revised, rewritten and improved.
A list of 16 “weaknesses” exposes that there are a lot of reversals in the government's accounting Sun System.
- The Sun System does not match the records of the Annual Reports submitted by Ministries.
- The Auditor found it hard to recognise the periods of certain transactions and when they took place.
- There are variances in the records of the Ministries and the records in the Sun System.
- There is a lack of records of government assets and depreciation amounts.
- There is a lack of records of disposal of government assets.
- The government Payroll system has problems.
- Some agreements made by government are not signed.
- The government has bad debts and loans that they have not been able to pay.
- Suspense accounts have been created that are not legally bound.
- Generally, there are incomplete records of notes related to financial expenditures.
The Audit was difficult because, among other shortfalls of information,
- It has not been confirmed if the government has shares in three companies, Ocean Royal Shipping, Lulutai Airlines Ltd, and Air Pacific Ltd.
- There is no official record of amounts government has invested in its own public enterprises and businesses.
- It appears that a very small amount of tax is paid by top civil servants.
The Auditor General audited 19 ministries for his 2020-21 report. He reported that it was not easy to check or access information required for the audit.
Six entities were not audited because of a lack of reporting for the period, including the Palace Office, Parliament's Office, Public Enterprises, Office of the Attorney General, the Public Service Commission and Tonga Fire and Emergency Services.
Aircraft puchase $6.2 million
The other interesting issue raised in the House, before it stopped broadcasting, was the purchasing of two aircraft by the government to maintain the domestic service (domestic flights have been disrupted because the current aircrafts were out of service.)
The Lulutai Airlines Ltd. is a government airline established in 2020.
According to the Prime Minister, Hon. Hu‘akavameiliku the replacement aircraft will cost USA$6.2 million. This is sourced from $2m from the Australian government and a $4.25m loan by the Lulutai Airlines Ltd. to buy the aircrafts to reactivate the domestic air service.
While the House was debating over the ownership of the two new aircrafts, it was publicly known that the two aircrafts, supposed to be two Y12 aircrafts had already been bought.
According to the Tongatapu No 5 People’s Representative, ‘Aisake Valu Eke, the first payment of $2 million US dollars for the two aircrafts was made by the Lulutai Airline in June last year, and the last payment of $4.25m was made early this month.
The Auditor General's Report for 2021-22 covers the financial operations of two governments - before and after the general election held in November 2021.
Setback for democratic reform
Live broadcasting of parliament, introduced at the end of 2008, was one of the most enlightening things that had ever happened to Tongan politics.
The interuption to the live broadcasts in 2023 is a serious setback and disruption to the democratic reform process introduced in 2010.
[Editor's note: 4 Sep. 2023 This article has been edited. In Paragraph 3, the original sentence “The radio has been silenced during debate on the Auditor General's Report for 2021-2022.” has been replaced with: “The live broadcasts on the radio were disrupted during the week when the Auditor General's Report for 2020/2021 and 2021/ 2022 was returned to the House for debate.”
2008: Freedom of Information - a vital step toward open government ...The meaning of the term Fourth Estate was defined by Ms Julie Owens, MP from Australia, who said that the term was first used in the British parliamentary context. "Henry Fielding said in 1752 that political writers concentrated on the three estates of Kings, Lords and Commons and took no notice of the Fourth Estate - the Mob. It was Edmund Burke in 1841 who reflected that there were three estates in parliament but looking up into the Reporters' Gallery, he said there sat a Fourth Estate that was by far the most important. ..Burke went to say that democracy is an inevitable consequence of writing," she said.