The senior politician who tried to topple Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa – and was due to appear in court next month – has died in Tonga.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Sione Vuna Fā’ostusia, 68, had been ill for some time.
He was one of the leaders of Tonga’s reform movement and a colourful character off the political stage as well as on it.
Fā’otusia was a member of the Tongan Public Servants Association and head of the association’s strike committee in 2005. The strike drew support from students, teachers, health workers and some Parliamentarians, as well as Prince Tu’ipelehake. The strike lasted six weeks and is considered one of the key moments in the development of democracy in Tonga that ultimately led to the reforms of 2010.
The former Deputy Prime Minister was counsel to the Shipping Corporation of Tonga, owners of the Princess Ashika, which sank with heavy loss of life in 2009. Four people were found guilty of manslaughter in the subsequent trial.
In 2014 he became Minister of Justice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Akilisi Pōhiva. He was re-elected to Parliament in 2017 and re-appointed to Cabinet. As Justice Minister Fā’otusia appointed the first Tongan judge to the Supreme Court of Tonga.
Following the death of ʻAkilisi he supported Tuʻiʻonetoa for the role of Prime Minister and left the Democrats to join the new People’s Party. He was made Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice and Prisons.
Two years ago he was charged with wrongfully interfering with the course of justice and using threatening language in a dispute over a cow. He was acquitted in December 2019, but an appeal returned the matter to the Supreme Court. He was due back in court on September 16.
In December last year MP for Tongatapu 2, Sēmisi Sika filed a motion for a vote of no confidence in Hon. Tu’i’onetoa on December 10.
The vote of no confidence detailed a list of concerns, including the allocation of road building contracts, Covid-19 preparedness and what was seen as selective government support for businesses.
Fā’otusia signed the petition and then resigned from Cabinet. He cited concerns about what he saw as the undue influence of disgraced former MP ‘Etuate Lavulavu on the Prime Minister and the cost of the government’s prayer and fasting excursions to the outer islands.
The motion was defeated 13-9 in January this year.
The Prime Minister has continued to be dogged by his relation to Lavulavu and his wife, a Cabinet Minister, who were convicted and sentenced to jail in the Supreme Court for fraud.
As a politician Fā’otusia was helpful to the press and generous with his time. On his door of his office was written in Tongan: “You can walk in, there is no need for you to knock and ask for permission to see me.”
Off the political stage, his personal life was colourful and he was known for his numerous liaisons. The late ‘Akilisi Pōhiva once joked that Fā’otusia has everything he needed to sit in the Prime Minister’s chair, but ne needed to get married first.
While ‘Akilisi praised and hailed him for his strong commitment to democracy and his personal support, he hesitated sometime because of Fā’otusia’s marital status, something that was not seen as reflecting well on him from a Tongan cultural or Christian perspective.
Fā’otusia finally married last year when he turned 67.