Complete honesty and openness only option for government as controversy and questions continue to swirl around Lulutai

Kaniva News editorial

One of the most important tenets of successful government is openness and transparency, but right now the public could be excused for thinking that the situation regarding the kingdom’s new airline is less than transparent.

PM Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa. Photo/Kalino Lātū (Kaniva News)

Last month Kaniva News and other Tongan media reported that Maikolo Fa’asolo was no longer CEO of Lulutai airline. In response the government declared that this was not the case, only to fall completely silent when we published evidence that clearly showed this was not true.

The public needs to know what happened to Maikolo Fa’asolo who seems, on every indication, to have been eminently qualified for the job.

However, there are other serious questions that also need to be answered.

The public should also be told why the Tongan government appears to be attempting to set up its own aviation engineering works, thereby duplicating facilities owned by Real Tonga.

Questions should also be asked about why the government seems keen to restore its MA60 to airworthiness, despite concerns surrounding the type’s safety record.

The government should  also be asking itself what will happen, when border restrictions are lifted and the tourist industry revives, if the New Zealand government is not happy with the certification process for Lulutai.

It has been normal in the past for the government to debunk allegations against the government or the Prime Minister, but not in this case.

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Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa said his government would respond to the serious concerns about Lulutai published  by Kaniva and other media. Since then, the only solid response has been a press release from the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

That press release went some way to throwing light on the situation by making it clear that PASO had no official involvement in the certification process of Lulutai. The work was done by a person connected to PASO working as a private consultant.

“In statements made by the Hon. Prime Minister of Tonga, and by the Hon. Minister for Infrastructure on the 23rd of September 2020, it was stated that PASO’s advice was sought, and that they were involved in the certification process. It is believed that this was a reference to Mr. David Tohi being a PASO consultant,” the press release said.

“It is hereby confirmed that PASO was not engaged by Tonga’s Civil Aviation Director, in any capacity whatsoever, for the certification process of Lulutai Airlines.”

The government needs to be aware that the situation has provoked public discussion that has encompassed comparisons with the failed multi-million pa’anga Royal Tonga Airlines project, the sinking of the MV Ashika, Tongasat and the scandal over Chinese loans.

Kaniva news is not suggesting for a moment that this is anything more than wild speculation, but the government needs to realise that with the internet, one person’s speculation can very rapidly become somebody else’s reality.

The government also needs to keep in mind that one day these people will be voters.

None of this is helped by the long history of dubious dealings that has tarnished the reputation of Tongan leaders.

Lies and suspicions of lies go back at least as far as the Nuku’alofa riots and the enquiry into what happens to the Chinese loan.

Even the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva disappointed people.

Given the tumultuous history of Tonga’s airline services, the government must realise that the controversy surrounding Lulutai is precisely the kind of situation that can seriously undermine public confidence.

Not only general members of the public, but experts familiar with the airline industry have expressed doubts about the level of due diligence involved after the government admitted PASO was not involved.

The government cannot keep trying to brush this issue off or hoping it will go away. Voters want to think they can trust their government to be completely honest. Travellers want to feel reassured that everything is above board with the country’s only airline.

It is time for the government to be absolutely open about every aspect of Lulutai’s situation, for the good of the public and the good of its own reputation.

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