Tonga’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to keep Lord Sevele-‘O-Vailahi in his position as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Tonga Pacific Games Organising Committee and keep paying his salary until the judicial review of his dismissal in October.
Lord Chief Justice Paulsen made the order in response to a request from Lord Sevele for a temporary injunction to halt the government’s attempts to dismiss him from his position.
Lord Sevele had filed a petition for an injunction at the beginning of June, but no further action was taken because an agreement had been reached to leave him in office until the review. Lord Sevele’s pay was stopped at the end of June and he then sought an urgent review of his claim.
Tonga was named the host of the 2019 Pacific Games in late 2012. The government enacted the Pacific Games Organisation Act 2013 to provide for the organisation of the Games. The Act gave the Audit and Governance Authority power to appoint members of the organising committee.
Under the Act, the Games Organising Committee is meant to follow any directions of the international body responsible for the event, the Pacific Games Council, which retains overall control of the Games.
In a lengthy judgement, Lord Chief Justice Paulsen said that in his view the Act did not give any power on the Audit and Governance Authority to terminate the Chief Executive’s employment.
On December 15, 2015, the Prime Minister, Hon. ‘Akilise Pohiva, wrote expressing the displeasure and concern of the Cabinet at the performance of Lord Sevele and his staff of the Organising Committee.
They said Lord Sevele was being paid too much and that his employment contract had been signed without due consultation with the Remuneration Authority as required by law. The letter also challenged the appointment, salaries and performance of other staff members.
On May 26 this year, Hon. Pohiva sent Lord Sevele a letter saying his employment had been terminated with immediate effect. The letter said the role of CEO and Chair of the Games Organising Committee had been downgraded when most of the committee’s responsibilities were handed to the Government Facilities Committee on February 5.
Lord Sevele refused to accept his dismissal and kept working. The Pacific Games Council has also refused to accept the decision, saying it was not within the power of the government.
However, in early July the Prime Minister’s office ordered that all funds for the Games Organising Committee be withheld, effectively cutting off staff salaries. This triggered the early hearing of the injunction.
After reviewing the arguments put forward by Lord Sevele on the one hand and the Prime Minister and the Audit and Governance Authority on the other, Lord Chief Justice Paulsen said Lord Sevele had a strong case for arguing that his removal was unlawful.
“I am satisfied that it is proper to grant an interlocutory injunction restraining the defendants (Hon. Pohiva and the Authority) from taking any steps to remove the plaintiff from office as Chief Executive and requiring them to pay his salary and other benefits pending the hearing of this action,” the judge said.
Bumpy road to the Games
Legal challenges have not been the obstacles to Tonga’s ambitions to host the Pacific Games in 2019.
There have also been threats from the main organising body and the sheer cost of running an international event.
As Kaniva News reported in May, Pacific Games Council chair Vidhy Lakhan warned the kingdom could lose the international tournament.
Lakhan wrote to the Audit and Governance Authority, which is headed by Hon. Pohiva, threatening that if it pushed for Lord Sevele’s resignation, the Pacific Games Council would start looking at the termination clauses of the host country agreement signed by Tonga.
The government has announced a variety of measures to raise money for the event, including increasing airport taxes and international money transaction fees.
According to a report from consultants Beca International, the kingdom will need to find up to NZ$73.6 million to fund the Games, but the real cost could be more than NZ$100 million.
The main points
- Tonga’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to keep Lord Sevele-‘O-Tonga in his position as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Tonga Pacific Games Organising Committee and keep paying his salary until the judicial review of his dismissal in October.
- Lord Chief Justice Paulsen made the order in response to a request from Lord Sevele for a temporary injunction to halt the government’s attempts to dismiss him from his position.
- The judge said Lord Sevele had a strong case for arguing his removal was unlawful.
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