COMMENTARY: Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni has kept the three disgraced cabinet ministers in their posts despite their conviction by the Supreme Court for electoral fraud.
Hon. Sovaleni, who is also known by his chiefly title Hu’akavameiliku, told a press conference the three Cabinet Ministers convicted by Court still retained their seat and Cabinet Ministerial posts. He said Sione Sangster Saulala, whose election as the people’s representative for Tongatapu No 7 was declared void by the Supreme Court, had tendered his resignation.
However, he had yet to approve it.
The Prime Minister’s refusal to act flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the convicted politicians’ elections have been annulled.
Hu’akavameiliku has defended his lack of action by arguing that they intended to appeal their conviction.
He said the Supreme Court was expected to rule on the convicted MPs’ stay of execution on Monday.
He said he respected the Supreme Court’s decision, but there were constitutional and legal processes to go through.
Government new budget
Hu’akavameiliku said the processing of the Budget was affected because the Ministers who had been convicted did not have much time for the budget, because they were working with their lawyers.
This afternoon he said the budget had been sent to the Office of the Legislative Assembly and would be tabled when Parliament session resumed.
President puts blame on Hu’akavameiliku
Senior journalist and president of the Tonga Media Council, Lady Luseane Vaea Luani ,told Hu’akavameiliku this afternoon the issue of the convicted ministers had triggered heated public debate.
She put the blame on the Prime Minister’s shoulders and said the issue was the result of his decision making.
“Ko ‘eku vakai pe ‘aku ia ‘Eiki Palēmia ko e ‘ū me’a ko ‘eni ‘oku tō ia ka koe. Ko e mamafa ‘i he faitu’utu’uni ko ‘eni ‘oku fakahoko’…”, Lady Luani said in Tongan.
It is unclear how MPs can properly debate the budget until the House was officially opened by the king next month.
As we reported last week, convicted MP and Cabinet Minister Akosita Lavulavu was told to sit down last year after she took the floor to announce her Minister of Infrastructure’s new annual budget.
Lord Tu’iha’angana asked the Speaker not to allow Lavulavu to speak in the House after her conviction as it would have breached the MPs’ oath to fulfill their duties with honesty.
House deferral after it was set to resume Monday
The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Lord Fakafanua originally told the media that the process of unseating the convicted MPs would take place on May 16, but said this had been delayed “because the government is not ready with the budget.”
Apparently citing Section of the Legislative Act, Lord Fakafanua said if the MPs were unseated by Parliament their seats would be vacant and a by-election would have to be called.
If their appeal for a stay of execution was approved they could go ahead with their appeal application. If their convictions were overturned the convicted MPs would retain their seats.
Was it for the budget or to keep the convicts in office
The speaker’s statement begs the question of whether the deferral of the unseating was really meant to allow the Budget to proceed or to give the Speaker and Prime Minister time to devise a way to help the MPs retain their seats.
The Prime Minister and Speaker have been criticised for allowing the convicted politicians to keep receiving their Parliamentary salary, even if only for the time being.
First the government said the convicted Ministers needed to work on the budget before it was submitted to Parliament. Today they said the budget was ready and it had already been submitted to the House. Now they are saying the ministers have applied for a stay of execution so they can appeal, all the while keeping their posts.
PM and Speaker must be fair to petitioners as well
The Prime Minister said the reasons why he did not demand resignation from the convicted ministers because they have rights to apply to stay the execution of their conviction and appeal it. Hu’akavameiliku was right. But unfortunately, the Prime Minister failed to remember the petitioners also have rights to see that the Supreme Court decisions are being served. And that court decisions did not say anything about the stay of execution application and appeal. The Supreme Court made two decisions only. It declared the elections of these ministers were void. Secondly, it informed the Speaker to unseat them.
This was why critics have asked why the Prime Minister did not remove the Ministers and let them fight their court case while by-elections were called. Once fresh elections were held and the new MPs sworn in, the Prime Minister could choose his new cabinet ministers from them.
How will the money be recouped if appeals will be rejected?
The convicted MPs will be paid with taxpayers’ money until they appeal. If their appeal is rejected, how will the money be recouped? Critics said this was why it was fair to unseat them as scheduled to stop them from still being paid from the Treasury. If they appealed and their convictions were overturned it would be fair to compensate them.
If the stay application is allowed, it will take until the next Court of Appeal sessions in September or March next year to process their appeal.
Critics believed most of the process of the budget is in the hands of the chief executive officers and senior staff of each ministry, especially the Ministry of Finance. The Ministers are there in the Ministry to provide leadership and direct how the budget is allocated.