Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet Edgar Cocker has vehemently denied reports the government is planning to sell the Lulutai airlines to a private company after we reported the Prime Minister said the airline was available for sale.
Cocker described the reports as a dreaming while sleeping “mohe misi” and wishful thinking “fakatuputupulangi”, the Kakalu ‘O Tonga newspaper reported.
He said he was the one who was in charge of the Lulutai airlines and anybody who wanted anything regarding it must come through him.
His denial was in absolute conflict with what we have seen in e-mails that appear to have been between interim Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa and a Fly Niu airline spokesperson Semi Halanukonuka.
In an e-mail in Tongan purportedly sent from Tu’i’onetoa to Halanukonuka on November 2, 2021, seen by Kaniva News, the Prime Minister confirmed to Halanukonuka that if the Fly Niu airlines wanted to buy Lulutai that was the best option.
He said if Fly Niu could take over the airline the government would cease its involvement.
He also told Halanukonuka that it would not matter if his government was replaced after the general election.
Tu’i’onetoa said what the government was looking for was a buyer who could operate the airline successfully, unlike all previous failed operators who went bankrupt. He also mentioned in his email that he had previously asked Fly Niu to send him its business plan.
In Tongan the Prime Minister wrote:
“Pea ko e taha kapau te mou fakatau a e Lulutai ka mau malolo mautolu ko e toe sai taha ia. ‘oku ikai ke matter ia pe kohai oku government he koe service eni ia oku essential ki he fonua. Ko e me’a tepuu ha taha te ne fakalele pea vakai atu a e pule’anga ‘e ikai toe bankrupt o hange koe all others ka e safe and secure a e services. Koe uhinga pe ia na’a ku kole atu ai a e business plan ke vakai kiai a e government”.
Tu’i’onetoa said the history of airlines operated by Tongans showed no operators made any profits out of it.
As Kaniva News reported last month, the government has reached an in-principle agreement to sell the national airlines to the privately-owned Fly Niu airlines.
We said the agreement was subject to an assessment of the Fly Niu proposal by the new government.
Halanukonuka told us at the time they were working to fulfil what Tu’i’onetoa wanted to process their purchase application.
Last year, Cocker publicly supported statements by the Prime Minister regarding the appointment and sacking of Lulutai’s CEO, which were later called into question by documentary evidence.
When asked by Kaniva News whether former Lulutai CEO Maikolo Faasolo had held the position, Cocker said no. When e-mailed the copy of the contract which showed Fa’asolo was indeed the CEO of Lulutai before he was forced to resign, Cocker said nothing.
Cocker and Tu’i’onetoa muddles
There have been growing concerns over the Prime Minister and his Chief Secretary providing conflicting statements to the public.
In October, the Prime Minister’s office told the media in a press release the Government had approved a major upgrade for the Vava’u international airport.
It said the proposed US$121 million project would be led by a registered British company known as Raw Mana Ltd. It said Raw Mana’s involvement had been referred to the Tongan Government.
However, the following day, Cocker told local Matangi Tonga Online that a full proposal has not been received and that the Prime Minister’s office’s press release did not mean that Government had granted approval for the Raw Mana Ltd to undertake the project.
The following week, Tu’i’onetoa corrected Cocker during his Radio FM 87.5 official livestream show. Tu’i’onetoa said his office’s press release still stood and whenever His Majesty was informed of such important event there was no need to change such information.
In 2019 the Prime Minister corrected a Cabinet decision signed by Cocker which was leaked to media.
The resolution was meant to revoke a decision to allow a public consultation on growing hemp in Tonga, but the wording included the phrase “approved as amended”.
When Kaniva asked Cocker for clarification he insisted the wording “approved as amended” meant the consultation application was rejected by Cabinet. We insisted that the phrase “approved as amended” could mean it was approved.
Tu’i’onetoa later said the wording of the cabinet decision was vague.
He said it should either said it was “deferred” or “not approved.”
We recently reported that Cocker was involved in an encounter with Prince Tu’ipelehake in a bar in which he was shown in a video to have fallen to the floor. When we asked Cocker for his version of the incident, he said he had been praying and was asking the Prince to kneel down so they could pray together.
Cocker’s version of events appeared to contradict the evidence of the video and reports by witnesses on news and social media.