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Tonga's elusive democracy

Nuku'alofa, Tonga


By Pesi Fonua

The true colours of Tonga's People's Representatives came to light during the debate in Tonga's quest for a new and more democratic system of government. After all the talk about democracy and an elected house they didn't want to get involved in the hard work of thinking how such a system might work.

At the end, the People's Representatives contributed very little to the structuring of the proposed new system of Government that the Tongan parliament approved before it closed for Christmas on the morning of December 18.

The notion of a fully elected house, where members elect a Prime Minister; and the Prime Minister selects his Cabinet, has captured the popular imagination of power to the people.

But during the process of trying to structure a system from such a small house, the most vociferous proponents of this so-called "pro-demo" theory were the first to admit that it would not work.

They were talking about a house structured from 17 members elected by the people and nine members elected by the 33 nobles.

In a move, perhaps, to shift the blame to the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission if the new system fails, the PRs - even before the debate started on the report - called a Press Conference to announce that they had embraced all the 82 recommendations that were proposed by the Commission.

At this stage, it was as though the PRs had washed their hands on the reform process. They had made their contribution known that they wanted a fully elected parliament, and from here on it was for the Commission and the government to structure a system.


During the last night of the debate in the House, December 17-18 over the commission's report and recommendations, the Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele told the House that the pro-demo PRs had expressed to him their concern that none among them has the quality to be a Cabinet Minister, and had asked that if the PM and his Cabinet were to resign, who then would run the country.

The Prime Minister also told the House that the President of the pro demo movement, Rev. Simote Vea, had also expressed to him the same sentiment.

Those expressions showed that the prolonged and repeated debate by the PRs over the Commission's report was a farce, and that the overtime debate on reform can be seen as simply a campaign for the next election.

The situation did not get any better, when PR 'Akilisi Pohiva supported the recommendation by the Commission for Tonga to have a Minority system of government with only 10 Cabinet Ministers. He said that 10 was enough because ministers, "do very little but drinking coffee."

Clive Edwards disagreed with the Minority Government idea. He recalled when he was a Cabinet Minister, the Minister of Police, and how at one stage he held about 21 portfolios, which he thought was outrageous, particularly if the intention of the reform was to improve the work of government. He disagreed with the limiting of Cabinet Ministers to only 10.

No by-election for PRs

At this point in the debate the status of the PRs in the House had deteriorated and any hope of them attracting support from either the nobles or cabinet ministers was vanishing.

The irony of the situation was that back in June the House passed legislation that if elected members are made Cabinet Ministers there will be no by-election to fill their seats. But not so if an elected member is appointed as a governor when there will be a by-election.

So when Noble Luani was appointed as the new Governor of Vava'u on July 1, there was a by-election and Noble Fulivai was elected as a replacement noble's representative.

Following the by-election PR Teisino Fuko expressed a concern that it seemed that there were more nobles coming into the house so their numbers are increasing but the people are under-represented

But 'Akilisi responded that there was no use talking about it, they had already passed the legislation

So not long afterwards when two PRs were appointed as Cabinet Ministers - Sione Teisina Fuko on October 29 and Samiu Vaipulu on November 10 - of course, there was no by-election to fill their PR seats.

It was naive to think that Samiu and Teisina would vote alongside the PRs. Their alliance had shifted and, of course, they supported the government.

If the PRs had intended to oppose government in any way then it was two less votes for the PRs at a critical time of decision making in the Tongan parliament, and more importantly a demonstration of how the people might be under-represented.


The PRs appeared to have lost the plot and their composure, and they have been totally outnumbered in the House. That was why they did what they did, prolonged the debate with trivial repetition, abstaining from voting at all.

'Akilisi after debating aggressively in support of the Commission's Recommendation for only 10 Cabinet Ministers, then moved a motion in support of the recommendation, but when the Speaker called for votes, no one raised a hand, not even 'Akilisi.

The table of the PRs was fragmenting as the debate continued, to the point there were only four, 'Isileli Pulu, 'Akilisi Pohiva, 'Uliti Uata and 'Etuate Lavulavu.

They were out-manoeuvred, out-smarted and out-numbered, and instead of the people having a majority in the new parliament, it is clear they will be a minority - because a majority of the elected members will become Cabinet Ministers, (the executive) and we have already witnessed what happened when an elected member becomes a Cabinet Minister, the alliance and vote shifted.

Move for change

Tonga began to take firm commitments toward structuring a new system of government after the Tongan parliament passed a Bill for the formation of the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission Act on July 23 2008.

An impetus for Tonga's political reform process was a statement from the king's office before the coronation on August 1, 2008, stating the willingness of the king to surrender some of his executive power in Privy Council to a Cabinet to be made up of elected members of the Tongan Parliament.

With legislation in place and with the blessing of the king, the reform process was rolling.

A five-members Commission: Chief Justice Gordon Ward, appointed by Cabinet as chairman; Hon. Vaea appointed by the Nobles' Representatives; Dr Sitiveni Halapua appointed by the People's Representatives; and Dr 'Ana Maui Taufe'ulungaki and Sione Tu'itavakie Fonua, were appointed by the Judiciary Commission. The Commission met for the first time and started working on January 5, 2009, mandated to present an interim report to the Privy Council and to the Legislative Assembly by June 5.

When King George Tupou V opened parliament on May 28, 2009, he further elaborated on his willingness for the Privy Council to surrender its authority to a Cabinet formed by the Prime Minister from elected members of the House. He said that two years was ample time to structure a new system for Tonga.

Lack of public participation

The Commission's June 5 Interim Report did not include any recommendations due to a lack of public participation, and a lack of written submissions. The Commission called for more submission and also expressed its concern over the shortage of time to put a new system of government in place before the November-December 2010 election.

Five months later on November 5 the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission released its final report with recommendations on how the Tongan government and the Tongan parliament might structure a new and more democratic system of government.

With the PRs opting to embrace all the recommendations of the Commission, they had very little to offer to the structuring process of the new government. In the end the House terminated 19 recommendations, passed 18, and also passed 45 that the government amended.

Now the government will proceed to draft legislation and the boundary commission will established to form new constituencies to get ready for the next election.


My take on Tonga's elusive democracy - Mafi ‘o America Samoa:
Very interesting to read your editorial … here is my take on the subject:

I am very surprised that you sounded surprised at the development or lack of development in Tonga’s quest for a new and more democratic system of government. I have said it before and let me reiterate.

1. You cannot squeeze milk out of a coconut husk. You cannot assume that anything democratic is going to come out of a group of PRs who have little to no knowledge or experience at all with any legitimate democratic system. Take a good look at our PRs’ profile. I do not see anyone with any significant working experience in politics to understand the nature and the responsibility of a democratic system. The PRs have done the talking and it appears to be all air. Now, it is time to do the walking, and all we hear is the sound of heavy feet in retreat.

Let’s hear it PRs, “we came, we saw, and we now admit we don’t know what the heck we were talking about” There is an understanding sympathy in the air. Mokofisi is naive saying that “democracy is slipping away from the parliament”. The common citizen of Tonga with any interest in parliament knew that the parliament never had it to start with. We the commoners have been led by the incompetent, selfish and corrupted PRs for so long. Now, we are going to face the future doing the impossible for the same ungrateful hoodlums with nothing. It has been my argument as a Student of International Relation and Global Politics that the US and its allies will continue to have problem in the Middle East with the Al Gaeda and the Taliban because they have not considered a better alternative to these Terrorist Organizations. To this day, the emphasis is on elimination. I saw the same problem with the 1987 revolt in Fiji and now we see the same thing in Tonga. Getting rid of the past with no one real understanding of the complex nature of the democratic system they have burnt Nuku’alofa for. It has been said that if we do not know where we are going, we are probably won’t get there.

2. According to the evangelist Billy Graham, “when wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost”. This is the case with the PRs. Their ultimate goal has been the almighty dollar, pride and power. A certain PR moved for a motion to decrease the number of ministers. Someone must have second the motion for the house to vote on it. Votes were unanimous against the motion, even the PR who made the motion did not even cast a vote. This utter disgrace and no respect to parliamentary procedure. There is no shame, there is no care and there is no more character in the Parliament of Tonga.

His Majesty King George Tupou V must have been governed by the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, “Man can adapt and withstand great adversities, the real test for leaders is to give them power [and more money]”. Now, look at the PRs and what they have done for themselves at our expenses since His Majesty gave them the power to change Tonga’s political scene.

3. There is no right way to do the wrong thing. There are no honors among fools.

While the parliaments are fighting among themselves for power and increase in salary, the common citizen suffers. The cost of living continue to rise. Cost of common goods such as sugar, bread and flour is getting out of the reach. Tonga has the highest cost for fuel per liter and highest cost per kilowatt hour of electricity compared to Samoa, Fiji, and American Samoa. The crime rate is rising to an alarming level in public suicide where Tonga is taking over Samoa with the Regions highest number of suicide per year. The parliament has very little time to be concerned about these problems as they are too involved in securing their status and their increase their earning.

I can see the next letter from the PR to His Majesty; Your Majesty, King George Tupou V, after the mess we have got the country to, your honorable PRs now need “Someone to be blamed for all the mistakes/crimes they have committed, they demand less work, allow them more time to do it and increase their salary for not getting it done”. By the way, if it sounds like we are totally out of our mind, it is because we are. Respectfully submitted your faithful servant, your people’s representative. - Mafi ‘o America Samoa

Tatau pe ‘a e kau PRs mo e kautama he tafa‘aki ‘e taha ‘o e tepile - T. Funaki:
I respectfully respond to Mafi ‘o Amerika Samoa’s (Mafi) letter on 26th January 2010. As Mafi has divided his arguments into 3 interwoven categories I will endeavour to respond accordingly.

Putting aside all the colourful language that Mafi employed; his core argument is that the people’s reps are incompetent. To say so is to indirectly argue that those who put these people into parliament are also incompetent. I do concede that at times the People’s Reps (PR’s) do act questionably but not all the time.

Let’s talk incompetency.
Ko hai ‘oku sea he komiti kakato, ko hai ‘oku sea he falealea? Who allowed them to have these roles? Do they have the necessary experience and/or skills to hold such offices?

In addition let’s ask, do the new ministers (lao mo e tanaki pa’anga) have the necessary skills to hold such offices? In short, are they competent?

Teu ki’I tali atu, ‘oku ‘I ai pe e me’a tenau ngaue lelei ai ka he ‘ikai ke lelei e me’a hono katoa. Ka ‘oku ‘I ai e ni’ihi ia tenau fai e ngaue ‘o laka ange he kau tama ko’eni.

Again, casting aside all the memorable one liners from yester-years, the main argument of Mafi’s second point is directed at the PR’s character.

He kohai koaa ‘oku taau hono ‘ulungaanga he taimi kotoa pe. Let’s look on the flipside. What happened to the once PR, the current PM, when he was given more power (office of PM)?

What happened to the likes of the minister of tourism, law and revenue collection when they were given more power (from PR to minister)? This is what happened: They forgot (by arguing against the PRs ‘o a’u pe ki he pole fuhu) the people who gave them the opportunity to be in parliament. I submit that those who have the power to give ministerial seats are the ones who lack character. Their brilliant implementation of the ‘divide and conquer’ algorithm is disgusting and borders on siolalo and ta’etoka’i. Ko’ene ki’I kamata atu pe ke maau ha timi kenau fetaki nima he teke e liliu kuo veteki e ki’I timi ia koia ‘aki hono fakakahoa’aki e ni’ihi e lakanga fakaminisita. Now who lacks character? The ones who are pawns or the ones who has the ability to divide and rule? To pick on one instant, (ie’ the reduction of ministerial numbers) and draw a damning conclusion of lack of character on the PR’s part, to me is a bit lame. ‘Oku ‘ikai haohaoa e kau PRs ka ‘oku tatau pe mo e kautama ko’ee he tafa’aki ‘e taha e tepile.

To summarise the third argument, Mafi seems to blame the PRs for some unfortunate happenings in Tonga. The increase in the cost of living, crime rate and suicides are somehow the fault of the PRs. Tau ki’I fakakaukau ange. We all have a part to play, some more than others. The PR’s without doubt have a part to play but lets attribute the most blame to those most responsible. In saying this, I mean that whilst the PR’s can take some blame for the economic downfall, the government has more responsibility and deservingly the most blame should rest with them. Government sets economic policies and implements economic strategies and as such they should take the most blame. Let’s not forget the current economic situation. In addition, whilst the PRs can take some blame for the increase in crime rate; parents, pastoral ministers, community leaders to name a few should take the most blame as they are the guardians of society’s moral fibre. Further more, I see no connection between the PRs and the increase in suicide rate. In short, the phenomena described by Mafi can be at best described as association not causation to/with the role of the PRs.

I do not have the necessary skills to present a political forecast for Tonga however, I am certain that these calls for change did not happen overnight. Something or somethings must have happened in the past to facilitate the quest for change. ‘Oku tau faka’amu katoa pe ki ha Tonga ‘e toe lelei ange.

Happy new year and have a blessed day Mafi. - T. Funaki

Political appointment comes with heavy responsibilities - Mafi ‘o Amerika Samoa:
While I have your attention, please allow me to respond to some of the issues you pointed out. You may find the following thoughts interesting:

1. I picked on the PRs because as a member of the public, I feel partly responsible for electing them to the office. It is therefore within my constitutional right to speak out against their mistakes because they represent me. However, on the other hand, I have no say or any influence on who becomes a minister. Our PR made sure that you and I and the rest of their constituents have no say in this matter by voting to choose the ministers from within their ranks. I also have do not have anything to do with selection of the PM.

2. Am I incompetent indirectly as you put it because I voted for these incompetents? Yes, regrettably, I am, and I’ll be the first one to say this in public, first, I wished there were better choices of candidates running for parliament, second, I should have considered my candidates competency before I voted them into parliament and third, I wished that other voters were not as incompetent as I was.

3. I hope you realize and understand that the PRs as elected officials are being hold to a higher standard of expectation than what is expected of us, the general public. So where “much is given to them, so much more is expected”. Our votes confirm that we are giving them our trust to act with our welfare and best interest in mind. As a matter of fact, when the PRs are confirmed as our representatives to the parliament, they swear with their hand on the bible, before God and Tonga that they will do just that. They are therefore expected to make lesser mistakes. My mistakes relatively affect but a very few people, family members and friends; The PRs mistakes affect all the people of Tonga now and in years to come.

Military personnel who have mastered the responsibilities of their current rank are considered for promotion to the next higher rank. When promoted, they arrived at the next rank without full comprehension of their duty and competency in their new assignment and responsibilities. However, there is a given number of years to acquire the necessary experience, knowledge and level of competency in this rank. At the end of this required time in rank, one is either found qualified to assume the responsibilities of the next higher rank and is promoted or is found not fit for the next rank and he or she is processed out of the military.

Most of our PRs have been in parliament for years; more than enough time to learn and grow with their responsibilities. That does not appear to be the case.

4. I agree with your argument but could not follow your logic. There are indeed incompetency and problems on “the other side of the table” also. But this does not condone the problem. Nor does it nullify the same situation on the PRs side of the table. If you add a “1/2 meti” (the old Tongan adage for a mental retard, with all due respect) to another “1/2 meti”, you’ll can only come up with 2 “1/2 half meti”, not a full normal person. Two incompetents won’t produce one competent. Again, we have to admit that what is wrong is still wrong even if all or a lot of us are doing it.

5. You hit the nail on the head Tino. You support my contention that these PRs have not properly and honorably equipt to carry out their responsibilities as PR. What makes you think they are going to change and all of a sudden better themselves as ministers. I admit that even with the careful scrutinization of military personal, some for one reason or another slip through the crack and get promoted. I saw this in combat with senior officers making decisions on responsibilities they have little knowledge of. Some let to causalities in the battlefields.

6. I am not blaming the PRs for the economic and social ills of the country. But I am blaming them for spending more time in status hunting, power struggling, and very little time discussing these issues in the parliament. For so long, the Political Change dominates the parliament discussion. Princess Ashika follows. These are very important, don’t get me wrong. What I don’t hear is enough emphasis on the economy, unemployment, crimes, suicide, health care, education and so on.

I hope that whenever and whatever type of political systems Tonga adopt will come in time to make any difference to the day day lives of the common people of Tonga. This week, being part Jewish (my paternal grandmother’s side of the family), I join the commemoration of the Holocaust of WWII. While the rest of the world were in political war games, over 6,000,000,000, (yes, 6 million) Jews died in the Gas Champers. While the PR’s are playing their games, increasing number of Mamas and Papas are barely making ends earning enough to support their families, Form 7 graduates roam the streets because there is very little scholarship and opportunities to further their education, people are dead from utilizing “unseaworthy” forms of transportation, there is no real explanation as to why more and more of our island country bothers and sisters are committing suicide, the cost of the most basic necessities of life is getting out of reach, and so on.

7. Don’t forget, PRs are asked not forced to become ministers. The PM on the other hand is forced by law introduced and passed by the PRs to extend this privilege only to the PRs. For you to say that the these assignments is a cheme used by the PM?government to break up the people’s side of the table is just too ridiculously elementary thinking on your part. But then again, you may have a point there and I think you should warn the PRs about the PM/Government scheme!!

Promotion in the military means rank, money, prestige, choice of duty station, and many other privileges. It may very well means reassignment. Desert Storm gave many opportunities for Combat Field Promotion. A few of my Marines were involved but everyone of them turned their promotion down simply because they were to be reassigned to a different unit. It means breaking up the team. A family I have trained, lived with and all ready to die for each other. This is what you call character.

Unfortunately, I have not heard of any PR trying to maintain the integrity of the people’s table by turning down the call to be a minister. The fact before us is that some PR has have already jump the fence and I can assure that more are anxiously waiting for their chance to follow their comrades to the other seemingly greener and brighter pasture. The icing to their already huge and deligious cake is the fact that being a minister also means no more worries about campaigning for our votes. What a deal !!! They don’t have to listen to the other PRs and they don’t have to kiss up to the voters anymore.

Saying soifua to you Mr. Funaki from the Rocks of AmSam, I asked that you ponder the words of our late Honorable Governor Pita Tauese Sunia, “If our elected officials are not responsible then who, and if now now, then when?” I feel your loyalty towards the PRs Mr. Funaki, but I hope you’ll wake soon before it is too late to realize that your loyalty is not being fairly reciprocated. - Mafi ‘o Amerika Samoa

Modern Tonga: Free Society of failed social engineering experiment - Sione A. Mokofisi:
Mr Amerika Samoa's lecture above on People Representatives’ incompetency left me befuddled. Is he saying that Tongan politicians are incompetent, or are they “social engineers?”

First, Mr. Amerika Samoa lectured illogically from a premise that “Tonga’s elusive democracy” is due to PRs’ “lack of knowledge or experience at all with any legitimate democratic system.”

The fallacy of his argument is based on: That one has to live under a democratic system of government to be a competent democratic leader. It is a flawed assumption. Using the American Revolution as an example would better illustrate the fallacy of his argument…

The American Founding Fathers were American born politicians; they did not come from any “legitimate democratic system.” They grew up as British subjects of the monarchy system, but they yearned for a more democratic system for America.

It seems to me that is what we are doing in Tonga today. Through studying the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith, etc., and germinal works of Greeks and Roman philosophers, Americans preferred the idea of a “free society” as the foundation of all democratic systems.

Secondly, linking military service responsibilities to PRs’ political responsibilities is comparing apples and oranges to me. Military service is a duty, but politics is a vocation.
For example, Mr. Amerika Samoa has no choice but to complete the terms of his “tour of duty,” and he must pass rigorous tests to get a promotion.

Meanwhile, politicians can quit any time before completing their terms in office. Moreover, they can vote in hefty salaries for themselves, even if they habitually show up for work late, and are often absent.

Conclusion: Mr. Amerika Samoa would agree, however, that Tongan politicians seemed uncommitted to the “free society” ideals of a democratic government. They seemed more interested in “social engineering.” If their goals are to satisfy their own selfish agendas, and are not based on the “free society” foundation of a democratic system, “Modern Tonga” will be a failed social engineering experiment. - Sione A. Mokofisi