PM’s Media Questions: Road Construction Project funding sources; debate on claims PM was a traitor; why road project began with cabinet ministers’ constituencies jumping the queue for work in electorates, targeting voters claims, Vava’u visit and dialysis facility.
Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa was interviewed by FM87.5 on January 16. An audio was provided by the Prime Minister’s office and transcribed and translated into English by Kaniva News. Some of the content of this article had been abridged and rephrased (in English) to make it clearer to our English readers.
FM 87.5: What is the government’s plan for Tropical Cyclone Tino as it is approaching Tonga?
PM Tu’i’onetoa: The government is ready to help the public when there is a natural disaster like Cyclone Tino. The Ministry of MEIDEC and Minister Poasi Tei, NEMO, the government CEOs are ready to help and I thanked them for their hard works. I would like to warn the public this is the season of tropical cyclones which will end in March and April. We have to keep safe and stay alert. Continue on praying to God and I asked church leaders and pastors to pray together with us so that God will protect our nation.
FM 87.5: The upcoming visit to Vava’u is important. What is important about this visit?
PM Tu’i’onetoa: This is an opportunity for me to be part of the the king’s visit to Vava’u to open the newly built Vava’u Police station. That will be an opportunity for me to meet the governor, business community, church leaders and those who will attend and meet with me there. Most excitingly this will be an opportunity for me to meet the civil servants there. I will also visit the new road project and will talk to the people about their most urgent needs.
FM 87.5: You previously invited anyone from the PTOA party to hold a debate with you about their description of you as a traitor. Can you clarify that?
PM Tu’i’onetoa: That’s true. In one of our programmes I said I would welcome anyone who wanted to debate with me on the accusation laid against me saying I was a traitor. But I intended to hold the debate in Parliament as I have heard the topic was currently debated in other places. But in my view the right place for this debate is in Parliament. This programme we are doing I am just updating the people on what is currently happening. A journalist had contacted me and asked to come and recorded a programme with me on the new road construction project. But I told them I was fully booked for my work schedules. This included the government’s budgeting programme for 2020/2021, natural disaster planning, working with the Education Minister on the issue of school drop outs and the low pass rate for Tonga’s national exams in 2019 and the needs to speed up the work to establish dialysis facility in Tonga. I want it to be done as soon as possible so our dialysis patients overseas can return to Tonga. I also want to look at the policing plan and the fight against drugs and others. The New Zealand and Australian Prime Ministers recorded a programme in which they wanted to update the public using one news media before sharing that programme with other media. I am doing the same thing here in Tonga.
FM 87.5: In the previous budgets the road construction policy allocation was increased from TOP$5 million to TOP$10 million and former deputy PM (Sēmisi Sika) commented on an estimate of TOP$500 million which was rounded up to an amount closed to TOP$492 million and TOP$611 million you mentioned in the last programme. You two have the same estimates. There were concerns whether the government has the money.
PM Tu’i’onetoa: I respect the former Minister of Infrastructure (Sēmisi Sika) and the former Minister of Police. It’s part of politics that we have different opinions, talents, experiences and different ways of how we trust God. The Lord has given us various talents and various people to help us. I clearly understand that this was a huge project. The biggest road construction project ever held (in Tonga) was by former Prime Minister Lord Sevele’s government in 2006, as far as I remember. And this is the second biggest road project I am doing. We are talking about more than 2000 kilometres to be filled and constructed in this project. We planned for this. There were new roads included in the project which had not been shown in the Ministry of Survey’s land mapping like the ngutungutu roads (roads running between the land boundaries and its 50 feet mark distance from the sea.) These roads are important because they will become roads for tourists. When these roads are completed they will help boost tourism, and they also added economic values to lands and properties in these areas. We were well prepared to implement this project right from the beginning when the People’s Party was established and it was written in our party’s constitution. I publicly announced this on the day I was elected Prime Minister. The Opposition MPs, including Sēmisi Sika, Penisimani Fifita, MP Mo’ale Fīnau and MP Veivosa Taka declared their policy priorities (on the day of the premiership election) and they were different from us. They did not include any plan to construct roads. These eight Opposition MPs agreed with the late Prime Minister that the most important project for the country was the Popua National Park, the new golf course and the six new bills the majority of the people did not accept. My priority was to have works to do and not to remove powers. The six new bills we are talking about were to remove powers. They wanted power while I wanted to work (for the country) and to do things to meet the people’s urgent needs.
FM 87.5: You have been accused of using the government’s new road project to target voters in the next general election in 2021. Not only that but also there have been concerns after the government began constructing roads at its cabinet ministers’ constituencies jumping the constituencies’ queue. What’s is the truth about that?
PM Tu’i’onetoa: That was totally wrong. As I told Parliament on September 27, 2019, if I was elected Prime Minister this was what I was going to do. I said the road project could take four years and I have divided that into two-year terms. I also said this will only happen if staff of the Ministry of Infrastructure follow through, otherwise it would cause problems to the project. Some of them appeared to have not believed in me and still trusted the former Minister. There was a need to change that and for them to follow our new government’s plans. We agreed with the late Prime Minister (‘Akilisi Pōhiva) when ‘Etuate Lavulavu was the Minister of Infrastructure, to approve TOP$164 million per year for new roads constructions and repairs. This meant the former government had approved a TOP$494 million estimate for the project’s three-year term. What the former minister (Sēmisi Sika) should have done was to continue on constructing the roads. We undertake to construct the roads even though we have not yet had the total amount of funding needed. It was in our heart and we prayed to God and asked for help. I and my cabinet and the people too prayed for this very significant job.
FM 87.5: The road constructions began right from your constituency and constituencies of your cabinet ministers. We normally began government projects according to the order of the constituencies from Tongatapu 1 down to Tongatapu 17. Why is that?
PM Tu’i’onetoa: It is very difficult to work together with people whom we do not hold the same beliefs. We need to begin with people who believe in us and then end up with the unbelievers. The same thing applies to contractors for whom we outsourced the road project. We will use the contractors who we hold the same belief before those who we do not have the same belief. The same thing also went to civil servants like the Ministry of Finance’s staff. This does not mean they were bad. It just that the work could be dragged on if their views were different from us. This was the reason why we began the project from our own constituencies as we wanted to begin with the people who we have the same stance. This project belonged to everyone from babies to adults because everyone used the roads. It’s different from the Popua National Park because only some can go and use it. This project is not an election campaign tool. We are just implementing what I told Parliament on the day of the premiership election. Those who are working at the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Survey, Prime Minister’s Office and all services which have links to this project let’s work together to make it a success. Those of you who did not agree and did not believe just take a break. We have seen how people were happy with the project. They donated free meals for the workers and constructors that’s the kind of heart we need. When the roads are good the people can go to their plantations from which they can make money to build their families and tourism. This will open up various economical benefits to the country as a whole.
FM 87.5: Have you anything else to talk about?
PM Tu’i’onetoa: The former Deputy Prime Minister (Sēmisi Sika) said he was informed there was no money. Last year TOP$7 million was returned to Treasury from the Ministry of Infrastructure. The Ministry could not use that money for what it had been allocated for in the budget. Last year also more than $50 million was returned from other ministries for the same reason. This showed we have plenty of money returned to Treasury. This project is being implemented within the laws. I would like to remind the public of my background. I was an auditor and Auditor General for more than 30 years and there was nothing new to me when it comes to financial matters. Most of the financial forecast I made in the past had been succeeded. So I ask the people of the nation to trust me and give me your heart. Let’s allow Jehovah to lead our road construction project so that we succeed.