Attorney General cites privilege as reason for not revealing advice on Lord Sevele to Cabinet

Attorney General Linda Folaumoetu’i has refused to reveal what advice her office gave to Cabinet about the appointment of Lord Sevele to the Reserve Bank of Tonga.

Attorney General Linda Folaumoetu’i. Photo/TBC

She said all advice provided by the Attorney General’s Office was privileged. 

“This legal solicitor-client professional privilege protects all communications between us and our clients from being disclosed to any person unless our client agrees to such disclosure,” she said.

“This is a long standing principle of law.”

She also declined to say what advice was given about speculation that Lord Sevele’s appointment might lead to a conflict of interest as outlined in items 88 to  96 of the Cabinet Manual and the Reserve Bank Act.

Kaniva News also raised concerns with the Attorney General about Lord Sevele’s involvement in the illegal transfer of millions of pa’anga  from a Chinese loan to Princess Pilolevu, his part in purchasing the MV Ashika which sank, killing 74 people and his refusal to pay back his share of the Chinese loan for the reconstruction of Nuku’alofa. 

The Attorney General said these were “mere allegations” because they had not been adjudicated before a Court of law and proven to be true.

Minister of Finance Tatafu Moeaki

“When court/tribunal judgments are delivered on the alleged issues, then appropriate authorities, including Cabinet, can take into considerations those conviction records in determining whether a person is fit and proper to be considered as a member of a statutory board or otherwise,” she said.

Kaniva comment

As Kaniva News has reported, the process for appointing directors to the Reserve Bank does not have to go through the Public Service Commission so that their background has to be scrutinised using the Cabinet guidelines and the Reserve Bank Act. The selection of the board directors is at the discretion of the Minister for Finance and Cabinet.

As we have said previously when we reported on the relationship between the former Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa and convicted fraudster and Cabinet Minister Akosita Lavulavu, ministerial discretion means Cabinet ministers have the power to make a choice about whether to act or not act, to approve or not approve, or to approve with conditions taking into account all relevant information.

The Minister for Finance has access to all the relevant information about Sevele’s involvement in a number of controversial actions. Some people might well think that the Minister had enough information to a decision in good conscience not to appoint Lord Sevele.

Clearly a segment of the public is concerned that a person with a highly controversial background may sit on the board of the kingdom’s most important financial institution. Such strong public reaction to the appointment would likely have an effect in countries such as New Zealand.

Lord Sevele

Section 10 of the NRBT Act says that in the appointment of directors, Minister and Cabinet as well as the board must – “give regard to a person’s recognised integrity …….” The question that continues to be raised, as a matter of proper public debate, is whether Lord Sevele’s integrity has been recognised to be of such a standard as to make it proper for him to be appointed to the NRBT board. 

So what is to be done? Perhaps Attorney General Linda Folaumoetu’i is correct when she says that many of the allegations and concerns have not been tested in court.

Here is what she said: “When court/tribunal judgments are delivered on the alleged issues, then appropriate authorities, including Cabinet, can take into considerations those conviction records in determining whether a person is fit and proper to be considered as a member of a statutory board or otherwise.”

So let the Cabinet set up a public tribunal where these issues can be aired and investigated properly. Let there be a proper, public enquiry on Lord Sevele and, in the future, on all Cabinet appointments that would otherwise avoid scrutiny. If a public enquiry declares there is no substance in the concerns about his appointment, let Lord Sevele take up his seat on the board. If an enquiry goes against him, however, he should not be appointed and that should be the end of the matter.

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