COMMENTARY: Parliamentarians’ written response to the King’s angry complaints about what he claims is their inaction will only add to His Majesty’s fury.
The report, which was handed in to the Palace office on Friday, showed no visible signs of remorse or immediate action to meet the King’s concern.
Worse, the letter told the King that MPs undertook to address his concerns and would report the result to him by the end of the parliamentary session. In another words, Parliament told the King to remain dissatisfied until next year in March or April when he will close down the 2021/2022 session.
The King is culturally regarded as toputapu (sacred) and is the most powerful man in the Kingdom. From the traditional and cultural perspectives, there was high expectation the government leaders would immediately make a show of repentance by wearing tauanga’a (black clothes) and hū louifi ( traditional practice of wearing ifi leaves when suing for mercy), but they did not do this.
There was also an expectation that the government’s high tone in promoting its own policies would be toned down to allow it to say something concrete about the King’s concerns, but this did not happen either.
The government has continued as if nothing had happened. Last week Prime Minister Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa led an entourage to Vava’u to celebrate the Vava’u governor’s wedding.
No wonder why the King refused an audience to meet the Prime Minster and the Speaker on Friday to receive parliament’s response.
King’s serious concerns
The King’s dissatisfaction was expressed openly, the first time a monarch has done this. His concerns can be classified into three main categories.
First, the King accused the government and Parliament of failing to make an extra effort to support Tonga’s war on drugs. He also accused Parliament of failing to oversee the government’s daily businesses.
Second, he accused Parliament separately of failing to address his concerns every year. He also said there were MPs who campaigned to be elected under the banner of honesty, but did not reflect or meet those standards.
Thirdly, he questioned the government’s ministerial reports and its interference in private sectors. The King wanted the government to learn from democracy. He said some government boards were operated by unskilled and inexperienced people. He also questioned why Tongan foreign reserves had fallen. He said Tonga’s overseas debt obligations may have been reduced if the government had supported local food private businesses. He also warned that the government’s duty was to operate its services and not be involved in running private businesses.
Action speaks louder than words
One of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, once said: “Well done is better than well said,” a variation of an old British maxim which says action speaks louder than words.
It would have been better if the government had made immediate changes to its priorities straight after the King’s speech and work on his main concerns later. Just to show the King a gesture of good will.
And these are some of the actions the Prime Minister and the Speaker should have already done:
PM’s multi-million roading Project should stop
Tuʻiʻonetoa should have immediately stopped his controversial multi-million roading project, even if temporarily. We can deduct from His Majesty’s great disappointment that he was upset by the government’s adopting such a controversial priority over his years of suggested priorities.
Tuʻiʻonetoa has repeatedly told his critics the road must be constructed no matter what. In another words, the Prime Minster has put this project before the King’s long-time calls to take special care of health, education, the economy and the war on drugs. It is estimated the roading project will cost more than TP$400 million over the next four years, an amount Opposition Party Leader Semisi Sika said would cause catastrophic damage to the economy.
Conflict of interest and untruthfulness
The King has questioned the honesty and trustworthiness of the MPs and the roading project has been heavily criticised for apparent serious conflicts of interest. The Tu’i’onetoa government offered the contracts for the new roading projects to his Cabinet ministers immediate family and friends.
They were the Minister of Police’s son’s company, the Minister of Infrastructure’s disgraced husband ‘Etuate Lavulavu and another company belonging to a member of the Prime Minister’s People’s Party. The Prime Minister’s argument that this was not a conflict of interest and that none of the contractor’s involvement broke the law was flawed. The mere fact they were strongly linked to those in Cabinet who made the decision for the roading project was enough for the conflict of interest to happen.
Unfair support for private businesses
In expressing his dissatisfaction, the King warned the government not to interfere with private sector’s affairs.
We can see his concerns in the way the government procured the contracts for the Prime Minister’s roading project.
In terms of fairness, these projects should have gone to local contractors who have been doing the jobs for years in Tonga and have the right equipment and expertise to do it.
However, the government not only offered the contracts to recently established companies of their immediate family and friends, but also took the risk of guaranteeing these companies’ multi-million dollar loans made from the government-sponsored Tonga Development Bank to buy their equipment from New Zealand.
Procurement failures, PM accused over freight deal
In procuring the contract to build and repair roads in Ha’apai the government offered the contract to a Tongan New Zealand-based businessman Sione Foaki Fifita.
Fifita and Tu’i’’onetoa come from the same village and have strong family connections. The Minister of Finance has previously told Kaniva News the contract had been put on hold because an agreement needed to be completed.
In addition to the King’s concern over the government and Parliament’s honesty, a dispute erupted earlier this year after heavy earth moving equipment that had been impounded for non-payment of freight costs was removed at the request of Prime Minister Tu’onetoa.
The promise to pay the debts later was not met and the New Zealand-based Tongan company, Tripac International Ltd, which is also known as Friendly Islands Freight Ltd, threatened to take legal action against the government, claiming it was owed it more than TP$100,000 for shipping the heavy machinery from New Zealand to Tonga.
The lawyer for the company, Nalesoni Tupou, accused the Prime Minister of unfairly treating Tripac’s freight by supporting requests by Fifita to release his equipment and to be paid later while other customers were not given the same support.
The lawyer also revealed there was another company involved with the roading project that had the same problems, but he did not identify that company.
Fasting for Covid-19 but not King’s concern over NDC
Another immediate action the Prime Minister should have taken immediately after the King’s speech was to stop his controversial national fasting prayer programme. He said it was to protect the nation from Covid-19. Tonga is still covid free because the government acted quickly and closed its border once the virus spread. The Kingdom has now received the Covid-19 vaccines and there is no reason for Hon. Tu’i’onetoa to continue on praying for protection at the expense of taxpayers.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak His Majesty repeatedly said in his speeches opening Parliament that he wanted the government to deal with the prevalence of non-communicable disease (NCD) such as diabetes. The Ministry of Health said Tonga’s NCDs remain a critical challenge. It reported that 99.9% of Tongan adults aged 25-64 were at moderate to high risk of developing a NCD.
The Prime Minister never called on the nation to pray and fast for the Kingdom’s NDC crisis to support this call by the King. If Hon. Tu’i’onetoa does not stop his fasting campaign, the King could see its continuance as an enforcement of a policy that was more important than his.
The Prime Minister’s fasting programme has been heavily criticised. Not only did government staff on the tour go to a cocktail party and drank alcohol during the fast in the islands, but it has cost taxpayers a lot of money to pay for the Cabinet ministers’ spouses who accompanied them. Critics, including spiritual leaders, have repeatedly called on the Prime Minister to ask churches to do the fasting and promote it online to save the country’s money, but he does not appear to have ever listened.
The Prime Minister is being accused of using the prayer campaign as a tool to promote his Tonga People’s Party.
Tourism saga and minister‘s refusal to resign
The King was concerned at how the government’s boards of directors were appointed. One action the Prime Minister should have taken after the King’s speech was to remove ‘Akosita Lavulavu as Minister of Tourism. This could have been a gesture of good intentions to the King.
Lavulavu’s dealing with the new Tonga Tourism Board of Authority, Vava’u Whale operators and the Tonga Tourism Association concerns have raised serious questions about whether she is competent and experienced enough to do the job.
The Prime Minister’s apparent acceptance of Akosita Lavulavu’s adamant refusal to resign after facing two serious fraud allegations displays a huge flaw in Hon. Tu’i’onetoa’s leadership. Lavulavu’s behaviour has attracted huge criticisms from the public and the Prime Minister needs to demonstrate a firm grip on Cabinet and on what law and precedent demand.
Contentious nobles constituency funding
Another immediate action that should have been taken in the aftermath of the King’s speech was for the Speaker to revoke the controversial constituency funding system approved last year for the members of the nobility.
The funding was meant for the constituencies, but the noble MPs are not elected by the constituents. This funding is undemocratic because not every constituency has a noble MP so they cannot have a share from this money.
Critics often associated the king’s nobles in situation like this with what had happened in 1980s in which the Late Opposition Leader and Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva later accused those parliamentarians after it was revealed they often held one-day meetings and were paid at the rate of a whole week meeting.
Parliament should concentrate on its role as lawmakers and leave the funding of any public project to the government’s Ministry of Finance.