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Tonga's choice: dictatorship or democracy?

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Editor's Comment
By Pesi Fonua

FOLLOWING the posting of my Editorial, Fresh new parliament needs fresh new members on February 23, there has been some aggressive flak from a People's Representative and reactions from political observers that attempt to distract from the points that were made.

The editorial reminded readers that it is only wise for us to stop and have another critical look at what the Tongan parliament has forced on us to determine over a ridiculously short period of time. It also put a spotlight on the integrity of the House and this upset one member.

We should remember that before the House closed its 2008 session our quest for political reform and a new system of government was described by the chairman of the Parliamentary Tripartite Committee as another "Tower of Babel" - meaning that the House had found itself in a state of confusion over the political reform issue.

So when the House closed in early November 2008 they were in the thick of uncertainties and the only thing that was clear was that they did not have a clear vision of the system of government they wanted to introduce in 2010. Admist their uncertainties, they decided to leave it all for the new commission to look at, to draw up legislation and make recommendations to come back to the House for approval.


But then in the final days of the session it became clear that there had been a serious problem of parliamentary procedure in the handling of the legislation for the forming of the commission. A Minister noticed that someone had changed the wording of the bill after it had been approved by the House.

What happened was that in order to form the commission the House had to pass a Bill for An Act to Amend the Constitutional and Electoral Commission Act 2008 (No. 17 of 2008), and then it went for the Princess Regent's consent before it was gazetted. But after it was gazetted, the chairman of the Law Committee, Hon. Siaosi 'Aho noticed that the wording of the Amended Act was different from that of the Bill that the House passed.

The House agreed that there was a problem and therefore the Act had to be returned to the House to be amended again and the wording was put back to its correct version before they closed.

We reported the fact that there was no parliamentary investigation into who cheated. Tampering with the wording of a bill after it has been passed is viewed as a very serious offence in any parliament in the world - except, apparently, Tonga's.

The integrity of the House has been tarnished with this kind of behaviour and it forces us to question the wisdom of giving the current members of the parliament the final say on the report and recommendations of the Constitutional and Electoral Commission for a new system of government.

The editorial pointed out that this momentous decision should be first taken to the people of Tonga in a referendum giving them the right to choose what they think is good for them before the legal technicians get to work.

The editorial also insisted that freshness is necessary part of reform. "Fresh new members under a fresh new political system" suggested that the current members of the House should not be allowed to stand for re-election for the new parliament under the new political system, and that new members should not serve longer than three terms.

But this upset one People's Representative.

Foreign missions

On March 4 the Deputy Clerk of the House forwarded a written response from 'Akilisi Pohiva who stated that he was in Fiji, (even though he was actually here in Tonga at the time). Apparently, 'Akilisi considered my editorial to be so important that he had copied his response to the Speaker of the House, all Cabinet members and all the foreign diplomatic missions in Nuku'alofa.

Unfortunately, in his response he did not comment on the Tower of Babel situation that the House has found itself in, and he did not enlighten us on how it came about that someone who had access to the bills in the House cheated by inserting a new sub-clause after it had been passed.

Instead, he focused on promoting himself as the champion of democracy and human rights during the past 20 years, completely overlooking the fact that the democratisation process started 134 years ago with the proclamation of the Tongan Constitution in 1875.

Then on March 6 'Akilisi told Radio New Zealand International that parliament had already settled some of the key aspects of reform, and he was recorded saying, "for example, the number of People's Representatives to be increased from nine to seventeen, and the Representatives of the Nobles will continue to remain at nine. This issue has been settled last year. So there are only a few issues left to be looked into and I think the Commission will focus on these remaining issues."

But this is simply a fallacy he is telling to the foreign press, who know no better.

We challenge 'Akilisi to provide proof that the House has voted and agreed on a reform model for a House with 17 People's Representatives and nine Noble's Representatives (the 26).

He also accuses anyone who criticises him of being "against democracy" or an "enemy of reform".

But this is a tired argument that "if you are not with us you are against us," and it is simply not relevant to journalism whose obligation is to inform the public - however difficult that may be. And particularly in this case, where we showed there are some serious problems that our politicians would rather hide and not talk about.

We need democracy

Journalists need democracy in order to function freely and to do their jobs, because under other systems, such as dictatorships, we will obviously live in fear of criticizing powerful politicians.

In my editorials I have consistently pointed out that if Tonga sets up a new parliament with such a composition of 26 members, it means that under the current ministerial structure there will be 15 Cabinet Ministers, two governors, one Speaker of the House. So we will have 18 Cabinet Ministers, leaving us with only eight members. These remaining eight members might as well go home because the Cabinet will rule without any credible opposition. And then with the same Cabinet Ministers, becoming members of the Privy Council, the Prime Minister will rule Supreme.

If we will embrace this composition of parliament it is clear to see we will put a dictator in power, and then it will be a battle to get him and his cronies out of office - elections are sweet for incumbents who have had enjoyed years of handouts of taxpayers money to buy votes on their national tours.

The great challenge before Tonga now is to put a democratic government into place as soon as possible and to avoid allowing vested interests to create a dictatorship.

To do this we need a fresh new parliament, with fresh new members demonstrating fresh new integrity.

See related articles:

Fresh new parliament needs fresh new members 23 Feb 2009.

Parliament turns blind eye on cheats who subverted law 12 Nov 2008.


Tonga's choice: Dictatorship, Democracy or a fine-tuning Monarchy System - Daniel K. Fale: I believe that there is a very good third choice we can strive for which has been brought up by a number of previous letters to the editor such as those by Uili Finau of Nomuka and others, which discusses the possibility of fine-tuning the current monarchy system with a number of democratic principles to increase the accountability and transparency of government and thereby decreasing corruption and at the same time increasing the efficiency of government. At the same time I would like to mention, and despite the beautiful picture painted by local politicians to make democracy look like a paradise with no problems, it is an interesting fact that there are more failed democracies in the world than successful ones, most of the successful democracies being limited to rich western countries. Even our democratic neighbours here in the South Pacific have un-impressive track records when speaking about democracy and human rights. Democracy does not magically solve all problems and issues, but in many instances multiplies and magnifies problems as we see in the extreme examples of Fiji and the Solomon Islands. I want to point out a very important aspect of Tonga’s political situation that is very much misconstrued by locals and foreigner’s alike. Tonga does not have a problem with human rights and freedoms. The problem in Tonga is government efficiency, which can be improved with increased transparency and greater accountability. However, clever politicians seem to describe the Kingdom of Tonga as a kingdom somewhere out of the dark ages with no independent judiciary and fair laws that protects the lives, property, and liberties of its citizens. Tonga is indeed a free society and perhaps it can be argued that Tongans exercise freedoms that are beyond those enjoyed by most people who live in other so called free societies. There have even been times recently where the government attempted to limit certain freedoms of press or access to public places and Tonga’s independent judiciary system overturned these government policies (which policies were for the most part pushed through and enforced by a former cabinet minister but who is now an elected people’s representative in parliament; the irony is amazing in Tongan politics) and the rights and liberties of Tongans were protected to the last straw in the past (eg. 16/11) despite the short lived attempts by government to limit these rights before then. The current peace and security in Tonga after 16/11 is a credit to our constitution, laws, judiciary, and yes, also the King of Tonga. If it were not for all these constitutional institutions Tonga would be in a civil war.

There is an interesting individual by the name of Natan Sharansky. He is a Russian born Jew, and a former cabinet member of Israel having held several ministerial posts throughout 1990’s up to 2005, but before that he was a former USSR dissident who spoke up against many Russian Government policies, and was eventually arrested and spent over ten years prison time in a Siberian labour camp. After being released from prison in exchange for Russian spies in West Berlin, Sharansky emigrated to Israel and became involved in politics. He co-wrote a book that had tremendous influence on President George W. Bush’s foreign policy called, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror”. In this book Sharansky divides the world and the various governments into two societies; free societies and fear societies. The ultimate test for a free society in Sharansky’s experience is the ‘town square test’. If a person can walk freely to the town square and say anything he wants against the government and its policies without fear of being arrested, tortured or killed, then you can know for sure you live in a free society. Here in Tonga people freely speak against government policies and even print in the local newspapers things that are utterly false about government and they have no fear of going to prison or being tortured for doing so. By Sharansky’s town square test we can definitely say that Tonga is a free society even though we happen to also be a kingdom. Many people might be surprised and ignorant of this fact, but yes, Tonga is free. I do believe that despite all the common arguments against the systems and forms of governments of various kingdoms throughout the history of the world, there is always the exception to the rule. I believe the Kingdom of Tonga to be a unique exception to the rule, if only more people realized this and appreciated the unique opportunities we are currently afforded under our current constitution, I do believe Tonga would be different. For not only are we free and our property protected but our land is hereditary forever. If appreciation for our constitution was greater and its genius was more clearly understood, this praiseworthy document that has already proven to effectively protect the lives, property, and liberty of its citizens would be accepted as more than a document written by men but one that was inspired by God. If this simple fact could be attained to in the minds of all Tongans we would then have a different Tonga today, and be in a totally different political situation rather than the bleak one we face now. Thank you local politicians and propagandists for doing a good job on making us all walk on our heads, and making people think we need to change our constitution as often as they do in some of our neighbouring countries to keep up with the changing times. Malo e kei ma‘u faingamalie. - Daniel K. Fale