The Prime Minister Tu‘i‘onetoa has placed convicted Cabinet Minister Akoslita Lavulavu on leave, but is still giving conflicting information about her situation.
The Prime Minister said Akosita was taking leave until after she had sought leave to appeal against her conviction in the supreme Court.
It is uncertain whether she will be paid while she is on leave.
Critics believe the move for Akosita to take leave was either the result of pressures from media and the public. Others have speculated that Tu‘i‘onetoa and the Lavulavus have made the move after the petition to impeach her was submitted to parliament last week.
On Tuesday Tu’ionetoa said Clause 23 of the Constitution allowed Akosita to stay in office for another 42 days from the day of their sentencing if they sought leave to appeal. He said he stood by that despite mounting calls for him to take immediate actions against the disgraced Minister.
Instead, the Prime Minister has tried to use three ministerial resignations from the former government to wrongly justify his refusal to take action against Akosita to the public.
He also appears to have downplayed question from the media on Radio 87.5 FM Facebook livestream on Tuesday about why he did not use his powers under Clause 51 to dismiss Akosita.
Wrong statements by the PM
Several of the Prime Minister’s statements appear to be wrong.
Tu’ionetoa claimed that if a Minister refused to resign the Prime Minster could not sack them and the King would not sign any recommendation for their resignations.
He also said that it was extremely difficult to sack a Cabinet Minister.
The Prime Minister also claimed that he might have acted against Akosita if she has committed her crimes while she was a Cabinet Minister. However, he said she committed the crimes in 2013 while she was not an MP or a Cabinet Minister.
He admitted that Akosita was being paid by the government while she was in court, but was only there some days and not the whole of the six weeks of the trial.
The Prime Minister also overstated the time it took for Akosita before she resigned in 2018 and Lord Ma’afu’s resignation to be processed and alleged the King declined to sign Late Prime Minister Akilisi Pōhiva’s recommendation to dismiss the noble.
What was the truth about the Prime Minister’s claims?
Tu’ionetoa was wrong when he said the Prime Minster could not sack a Minister who refused to resign according to clause 51 of the constitution.
Clause 51 (3) (a) says: “Minister shall retain his position as Minister until – (a) his appointment is revoked by the King on the recommendation of the Prime Minister or in accordance with clause 50B”.
This clause has two independent phrases divided by the conjunction “or” which means it is ether the prime minister can recommend a revocation to the king or the minister can be revoked according to clause 50B.
In his livestream talk show the Prime Minister appears to have intentionally avoided talking about the first phrase and claimed his power in clause 51(3)(a) can only be exercised according to clause 50B.
In 2014 Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakanō demanded the then Minister of Finance, Lisiate ‘Ākolo, resign. ‘Ākolo refused to resign, but the Prime Minister publicly announced he has sacked ‘Ākolo. ‘Ākolo was defiant and told the public he was still a minister, despite the announcement. Lord Tu’ivakanō brought security guards to guard the Cabinet house compound and barred Ākolo from entering a Cabinet meeting which was held to decide his fate. ‘Ākolo never resigned, but Lord Tu’ivakanō recommended to the palace that he be replaced.
The king appointed Dr ‘Aisake Eke as new Finance Minister. Dr Eke was appointed on January 10, 2014, despite Ākolo claiming he was still Minister. It is believed Ākolo was the first Cabinet Minister to be fired by the Prime Minster without tendering his resignation.
Respected lawyer Clive Edwards, who was in Cabinet at the time, told media that when ‘Ākolo refused to resign the Prime Minister has the “sole power” to dismiss him.
Tu’i’onetoa could also use this case as a precedent to sack Akosita.
There is also the Cabinet Manual which its section 26 says: “In formal terms, Cabinet Ministers are also appointed and dismissed by His Majesty the King on the recommendation of the Prime Minister”.
Dismissing a Cabinet minister was not difficult
Tu’i’onetoa was wrong when he said it was difficult to sack a Cabinet Minister who went through the due process before he was appointed by the King. In fact, the government representatives in ministerial posts are the easiest to dismiss.
If the Prime Minister wants a minister to resign, that minister must go immediately no matter if they agree or not. Some ministers in the past were sacked and left their office within 24 hours. The best example was ‘Ākolo’s case.
Again it was the Prime Minister’s exclusive power given by clause 51(3)(a).
Did Tu’i’onetoa ask Akosita to resign?
Tu’i’onetoa claimed the minister must agree to resign before he can make a recommendation to the king to dismiss her. The question now is for the Prime Minister to tell us whether he has asked Akosita to tender his resignation immediately after her conviction.
The Prime Minister’s claims that he may have taken action against Akosita if she committed the crimes while she was a Cabinet Minister seem unlikely. He said Akosita committed the offence in 2013 while she was not a Member of Parliament.
The truth is that the Lavulavu couple were charged in 2018 and that was the first time the public became aware of allegations that they had defrauded more than half a million pa’anga from the government school grant scheme.
Tu’i’onetoa knew Akosita had been charged with serious fraud before appointing her. Surely he had a duty to check the constitutional implications before he appointed her.
PM admits Akosita was paid while in court
Tu’i’onetoa was invited to tell the public how much Akosita was paid while she was out of office facing her fraud charges. He was expected to either justify the payment and state the legal position on Cabinet ministers being paid while effectively out of office and unable to do their job.
Instead he told the livestream audience that Cabinet Ministers worked 24 hours a day and they were equipped with internet at home and mobile phones to make it easier for them to get in touch with the public whenever they were needed.
PM overstated resignation cases
Tu’i’onetoa wrongly told the public it took four months before Akosita Lavulavu agreed to resign from her post as Internal Affairs Minister after the Late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi dismissed her. She was removed after she and her husband Etuate Lavulavu were charged with using forged documents and obtaining credit by false pretences in relation to the Unuaki ‘o Tonga Royal Institute, the same charges on which she has now been found guilty. She was sacked after refusing to resign.
Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa claimed His Majesty would not sign ‘Akilisi’s recommendation to sack her. He also claimed that King did not approve recommendation by ‘Akilisi to dismiss Lord Ma’afu. He claimed this delayed the resignation process by four months. Tonga Broadcasting Commission at the time reported that ‘Akilisi denied claims the king did not approve his recommendation to sack Lord Ma’afu.
Only two months
In fact, Akosita was publicly dismissed on April 12 2018 before it was announced in June 21 that the king has signed ‘Akilisi’s recommendation to sack her. That was nine weeks and three days or two months one week and three days. Lord Ma’afu tendered his resignation on March 2 before he was returned to Cabinet on May 17. That was 10 weeks and five days or two months two weeks and two days.
We can tell from Akosita’s first refusal to resign before finally being dismissed in 2018, and Lord Ma’afu’s agreeing to resign the same year by handing his resignation letter to the then prime minister but was not immediately officially dismissed and ‘Ākolo’s repeatedly resisting Lord Tu’ivakanoo’s demand for his resignation but still the prime minister went ahead with his dismissal – the king’s approval of recommendation from prime ministers to sack a minister does not depend on the minister’s permission, as claimed by Tu’i’onetoa.
A failure of duty
Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa’s lack of action over Akosita shows he has failed to fulfil his duty to make good decisions as leader of the government.
His responses to media, particularly his clinging to Clause 21, have all been about protecting Akosita. It was not until the media pushed for him to use Clause 51 of the Constitution that he finally did something.
The public expect the Prime Minister to talk about facts and support his arguments with a proper understanding of the law and constitution.
Unfortunately, the media and the public are still in the dark over certain issues, chief of which is the question of whether Akosita will continue to be paid while she is on leave.
If Akosita is jailed next month, will she receive any remuneration and money from the government? The public wants to know if their taxes are being used to pay her.
Tu’i’onetoa should explain to the public why he made the surprise move to send Akosita on leave. Given his constantly shifting justifications to defend his refusal to take actions against Akosita, it is important for the public to know whether his actions have been meant to benefit the government or to benefit the disgraced Minister.