FROM OUR ARCHIVES, 20 October 2009
From the House, by Pesi Fonua
Tonga's parliament discovered an elusive unity of purpose last month, when after months of frustrating debate over the direction of reform the House led by the Prime Minister, decided almost to a man, that some set beliefs and traditions should be upheld and the Constitution should not be changed to allow Tongan women equality under the law.
The Prime Minister did not think that any members of the House, "who are supposed to be the leaders of the country" would agree that Tonga should be a signature to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
So, on this unfortunate issue, the leadership of Dr Feleti Sevele has at last won the support of a majority of members of the Tongan parliament; an interesting development as we are heading for a new election, only 12 months away, of a new government under a new system of government.
The unprecedented victory by the Prime Minister and the praise he received for it from his opponents in the House, came about after he clarified to the Whole House Committee on 17 September why government rejected a motion that was passed by the House last year calling on government to ratify CEDAW. The motion was tabled into the House by People's Representatives 'Akilisi Pohiva and 'Isileli Pulu.
The Prime Minister said that government is in full support of the law and the Constitution of Tonga, "our hereditary, culture, and family life, and the right of women."
Land and hereditary titles
However, Dr Sevele told the House that there were confusing issues that needed to be clarified. Firstly, was the objective of the convention, stated in section one, which he believed was to "terminate all clauses of the constitution and the law, and traditional and cultural matters that differentiate women and men."
"Section Two states that a country that ratifies the convention has to act without delay to terminate law and the constitution that differentiate men from women."
He said that if Tonga ratified the Convention then Tonga would have to amend the Land Act, the hereditary issues relating to noble titles, and the title to the Tongan Throne. "We have a set belief in our traditions, and in the bible, that the head of the family is the man. That would be removed."
He said that in the case of a divorce, the husband and wife would have to share their wealth equally between them. "We also have to allow same-sex marriages."
Therefore the Prime Minister did not think that any members of the House, "who are supposed to be the leaders of the country would agree that Tonga should be a signature to the Convention."
He said that it had been reported that Tonga is one of three countries in the region that had not ratified the convention, but he remained firm in his conviction that if it was against "our culture, tradition, constitution and the law, and we are the only one that does not ratify it, then let it be." He reminded the committee that the USA had not ratified the convention either.
Following the Prime Minister's presentation the two members who tabled the motion, 'Akilisi Pohiva and 'Isileli Pulu, praised the Prime Minister for his presentation and 'Akilisi asked for their motion to be withdrawn, despite the fact that it had been approved by the House last year and rejected by government this year.
'Isileli Pulu, praised the Prime Minister for his most comprehensive speech, "the first this year, and during the past few years."
Clive Edwards who during the past few years has been an ardent opponent of the Prime Minister in the House, asked the Chairman for permission so that he could tell the Prime Minister that they (meaning he and others who have been habitually opposed to anything that is proposed by government) are in full support of the stance taken by government not to ratify CEDAW, stating, "we believe that it would tarnish our hereditary custom and our laws."
'Isileli said that the campaign speech of the Prime Minister was too long but very comprehensive.
'Uliti Uata said he supported the PM's speech.
'Akilisi said that was how they should work in the House, if they knew that a right decision had been made, they should give it their full support. "So we hope that you will do the same," he said. But then later he abstained from voting.
The Chairman who was eager for the committee to proceed said that he would call for votes.
'Akilisi Pohiva, 'Isileli Pulu and Sunia Fili did not think there was any need for the committee to vote on the CEDAW issue.
"We fully support the government's view, so we should leave it there, it is finished, finished," scolded 'Akilisi, as though he regretted that he had tabled the motion in the first place.
The Prime Minister, however, insisted that it was important for government for the House to vote on the government's decision not to ratify the convention, because overseas people will be interested to know if the government's decision had the support of the House.
Clive Edwards did not think it was a big issue for them to vote on the CEDAW issue, but what was most important to be recorded was their support for government not ratifying the convention was not because they disagreed with women's rights, but because the convention clashed with the status and the Constitution of Tonga.
The Chairman called for votes on the decision by government not to ratify CEDAW. It was carried 18-1. Against was Sunia Fili.
For it were Clive Edwards, 'Etuate Lavulavu, 'UIliti Uata, Sione Feingatau 'Iloa, Minister of Commerce, Minister of Education, Minister of Finance, Minister of Lands, Survey and Natural Resources, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Information, the Minister of Environment, Noble Fulivai, Noble Tangipa, Noble Tu'iha'angana, Noble Vaha'i and Noble Tu'ilakepa.
Abstaining were 'Akilisi Pohiva, 'Isileli Pulu and Teisina Fuko.