Tonga’s political crisis – the inside story

Speaker Lord Tu'ivakano (right) speaks as PM Pohiva looks on

By STAFF REPORTERS

NUKU’ALOFA-September 16: 1.17pm (Nuku’alofa Times): Tonga’s political events in the past three weeks took the region by surprise.

First it was His Majesty King Tupou VI who did the unprecedented and disssolved Parliament, with it also sending Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government out.

PM Pohiva is under pressure now with claims he had lied

PM Pohiva is under pressure now with claims he had lied

Having taken some advise from the Speaker of the Tonga Legislative Assembly, Lord Tu’ivakano, King Tupou VI became the first in the history of the Kingdom’s political life to use his powers under the Constitution to change a government and dissolve Parliament.

Many Tongans, both here in Nuku’alofa and abroad, were shocked and caught unawares of what had transpired on August 24.

Even PM Pohiva said he was caught by surprise and did not know what happened until later in the day when the reality of it all finally sunk in.

Lord Tu’ivakano, himself a former Prime Minister and a current Nobles’ rep in Parliament, later told the people of Tonga he had advised the King about certain issues that were causing uneasiness within Parliament and how the government of Akilisi Pohiva were dealing with them.

Second was the idea mooted by former government advisor and a former senior civil servant Lopeti Senituli that His Majesty’s action could be challenged in court, despite claims by the Acting Attorney General that the King’s decision was final.

Mr Senituli, a Tongan regarded highly both here and abroad, believes that the reasons outlined by Lord Tu’ivakano were not strong enough to cause the dissolution of Parliament.

Although challenged by the Acting AG in Aminiasi Kefu, Mr Senituli has started gathering support both here and overseas for a challenge of the King’s action.

Third was the sacking of two senior Cabinet Ministers as was recommended by PM Pohiva, who used his constitutional powers to ask His Majesty for that action to be carried out.

Mr Pohiva’s deputy Siaosi Sovaleni, who was also Minister in Charge of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change and Communication (MEIDECC) plus the Foreign Affairs portfolio, became a victim of his leader’s insecurity when he was advised his time in Cabinet was up.

With him went Finance and National Planning Minister, Hon Tevita Lavemaau.

Both were Independents who won seats in 2014, after having served Government as senior civil servants as well.

The two were one of the six Independents who joined Mr Pohiva’s Democractic Partyof the Friendly Islands after the 2014 General Elections to form Government.

That gave Mr Pohiva the nod to become the first democratically-elected commoner Prime Minister of Tonga.

Interestingly the duo, along with others sacked by PM Pohiva – Dr Aisake Eke (former Finance and National Planning Minister) and Mr Fe’ao Vakata (former Minister of Internal Affairs) – will be standing in the November elections again.

The four, if elected back into Parliament, will definitely be interested to return to Cabinet and their selection of who to join would be interesting indeed.

Time really will telll what happens.

So what is really happening on the Tongan political front?

And what does it mean for Tonga’s drive for full democracy?

 

King’s power

His Majesty’s decision shocked majority of Tongans here and abroad.

Using his powers in the Constitution, King Tupou VI called for an early end to Parliamentary proceedings and an immature end to PM Pohiva’s elected government.

The gazette published in the Crown Law website on August 25 said

“Instrument of Dissolution

We, Tupou VI, by the Grace of God, of Tonga, King:

Having Considered Advice from the Lord Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and

Having Regard to Clauses 38 and 77(2) of The Act of Constitution of Tonga (Cap. 2) Do lawfully dissolve the Legislative Aseembly with effect from Thursday 24 August 2017 at 1700 hours and Do Command that new representatives of the Nobles and People be elected to enter the Legislative Assembly at Elections to be held no later than 16 November 2017.

Done by Us at Nuku’alofa this Twenty Fourth day of August int he Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen and in this is the Sixth Year of Our Reign.

TUPOU VI”

Clause 38 of the Constitution of Tonga (Cap 2) sets out the King’s relations with Parliament. While Clause 77covers the frequency of General Elections, and the King’s power to dissolve parliament. (Amended in 2010):

Clause 38 

The King may convoke the Legislative Assembly at any time and may dissolve it at his pleasure and command that new representatives of the nobles and people be elected to enter the assembly. But it shall not be lawful for the Kingdom to remain without a meeting of the Assembly for a longer period than one year. The Assembly shall always meet at Nuku’alofa and at no other place except in time of war. (Law No. 1 of 1914.) Constitution 1988 edn.

Clause 77(2) General elections

  1. (1)  Elections shall ordinarily be held for all the representatives of the nobles and the people every four years, and if not earlier dissolved the Legislative Assembly shall stand dissolved at the expiration of four years from the date of the last general election.
  2. (2)  It shall be lawful for the King, at his pleasure, to dissolve the Legislative Assembly at any time and command that new elections be held.

(3)  If the Legislative Assembly is dissolved by the King or by the operation of sub-clause (1), the King shall, after consultation with the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, fix a date for a general election. (2010)

 

Issues

Lord Tu’ivakano, who had served as Prime Minister up to 2014, said it was apparent to him that Mr Pohiva’s government was working against the rule of law and the Constitution of the Kingdom of Tonga with some of their decisions.

He said Mr Pohiva and his Cabinet had made some decisions that questioned the check and balances of this vested powers.

  • Lord Tu’ivakano said he became increasingly concerned by certain decisions of Cabinet that appeared to disregard the rule of law and the check and balances of democracy that was made inherent in the Constitution.
  • He said one was the key issues was the move by the Pohiva-led Government to destroy the right of the royal ascent of His Majesty.

This was exercised by the late King Tupou IV when he did not want to grant royal ascent to a parliamentary resolution for Tongans overseas lose their entitlements to land here in Tonga.

  • Lord Tu’ivakano pointed to the Pohiva-led government’s decision to ratify CEDAW in 2015, which prompted a public outcry against the decision resulting in a march through Nuku’alofa by members of the Christian faith and the presentation of a petition to Lord Tu’ivakano at the Parliament complex.
  • Opposition against the PACER PLUS – the trade agreement pushed through by New Zealand and Australia for the Pacific Island Countries – was disregarded by Mr Pohiva and his Cabinet, who hosted the signing of the agreement here in June.

A petition was also sent to Parliament by local businesses and concerned members of the public.

  • Cabinet is attempting to wean away the King and Privy Council’s powers to appoint the Police Commissioner and place that with Cabinet.

The push was already with the Office of the Legislative Assembly, who had received Government’s motion for that to be effected in Parliament.

Lord Tu’ivakano said it was important that the Offices of the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner remained free and independent and not be politicised.

  • Lord Tu’ivakano said another issues was the fact that the imporant purpose of the 2010 reforms to have the Legislative Assembly working together to direct Tonga’s growth and development was not happening.

This democratic purpose has not been applied in the legislative assembly, he said.

  • Another case highlighted by Lord Tu’ivakano was the case against then Minister for Tourism and Infrastructure, Etuate Lavulavu, who had faced impeachment charges for corruption in 2015.

Despite calls for the impeachment to be effected Mr Pohiva used Clause 75 of the Constitution and requested that he be allowed to discipline the then Minister.

Cabinet Ministers supported the move and Mr Lavulavu escaped being impeached.

Lord Tu’ivakano said that following recent debates in Parliament it was revealed that Mr Pohiva did not in fact penalise Mr Lavulavu, who has been one of his advisors and member of the inner circle of friends he keeps.

Mr Lavulavu is currently the leading man in the construction of the golf course at the Popua site.

Lord Tu’ivakano revealed in his statement that other motions of impeachment against Mr Pohiva and his Cabinet Ministers have been tabled with the Legislative Assembly but he believes these will face similar fates as that of Mr Lavulavu in 2015.

  • One of the major issue also highlighted by Lord Tu’ivakano was the cancellation of the 2019 Pacific Games.

He said the Games Act was passed in 2013 with subsequent Acts passed since to help raise revenue for the Games’ funding.

“Since the government came into office they have given assurances that Tonga will host the 2019 Pacific Games,” he said.

“However, in May they announced they were withdrawing from hosting the Games, deceiving and misleading the Parliament and members of the public.”

Lord Tu’ivakano said one of the worrying things is the fact that Government has not waived the collection of taxes that were approved in earlier Bills since the Games has been cancelled.

“I am concerned with the legality of the revenue still being collected,” he said.

  • The approval of a 5% COLA for Cabinet Ministers was also another issue pinpointed by the Speaker.

He said that on July 1, 2017 a new income tax threshold was announced.

On August 4 Government announced a 5% COLA for Cabinet Ministers.

“I found this unsatisfactory because the Ministers are not the only ones affected by the tax threshold,” Lord Tu’ivakano added.

He said he had advised His Majesty on the issues to the best of his knowledge and ability.

He also noted the statements made by the late King George Tupou 1, who stated on November 4, 1875 that Members of Parliament should not take pride in their achievements but thank God for his leadership always.

King George 1 said that Tonga’s future hangs on the Legislative Assembly and the decisions made within the noble house.

 

 Senituli’s view

Mr Senituli is not a stranger to politics in Tonga and the region as well.

Having been the lead figure at the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre in Suva for some years, he returned home to lend his expertise to governments in the past, including a stint as adviser to then Prime Minister Lord Sevele.

He also served as Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and stood as a candidate at the 2010 General Elections here.

Having considered the King’s decision he published his opinion, openly calling for PM Pohiva and his team to challenge the decision in court.

His statement received a response from Acting Attorney General Aminiasi Kefu, who stated that Mr Senituli’s claims were wrong and ‘mistaken’.

But having also conceded that he might have made some errors in his statement, Mr Senituli has continued the call for a challenge on the King’s decision.

Former DPM Siaosi Sovaleni

Former DPM Siaosi Sovaleni

“From the outset I must state that I have the utmost respect for the Acting Attorney General as a professional and as a gentleman and that I continue to treasure his legal advice today as I had in the past, and I pray that he will continue to respond positively to my requests for advice in the future, present disagreement notwithstanding!,” Mr Senituli said.

“I concur with the that, “any legal action that will be taken against the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly will be dismissed summarily by the Courts”.

“But that will not necessarily be a bad thing. How so? Because the whole purpose of the proposed legal challenge is to find out exactly whether the dissolution was justiciable and if it was justiciable, was the dissolution done legally.

“If the Court were to find that the dissolution was not justiciable, that would not necessarily be a bad thing either. How so? Because it would then give the people of Tonga the opportunity to discuss whether our Constitution and our laws should be amended to ensure that the exercise of the personal Royal prerogative to dissolve the Legislative Assembly is limited by certain parameters so as to ensure that the next time the prerogative is used, that it is justiciable.

“If the Court were to find that the dissolution was justiciable and that it had been done legally, that would not necessarily be a bad thing too. How so? Because it would then give the people of Tonga the opportunity to discuss whether our Constitution and our laws should be amended to ensure that the exercise of the personal Royal prerogative to dissolve the highest democratic decision making body in the nation cannot be dissolved on the basis of flimsy charges of alleged threats to His Majesty’s prerogatives and alleged mismanagement by the Hon Prime Minister and Cabinet.”

Mr Senituli said His Majesty’s personal Royal prerogative to dissolve the Legislative Assembly at his pleasure had been entrenched in “our Constitution for well over a century but this is only the first time ever that it had been invoked. So we are in uncharted waters.

“As such this is the ideal window of opportunity for the people of Tonga to find out whether such Royal prerogative is justiciable and whether it is still appropriate in this day and age and whether its utility is still valuable in light of the magnanimous voluntary devolution by His Late Majesty King George Tupou V of the executive powers of governing the country to an elected Prime Minister and Cabinet and the His Late Majesty’s Royal assent to the constitutional reforms that were adopted by the Legislative Assembly in 2010. That window of opportunity is available if a legal challenge to the dissolution was to be filed in the Supreme Court”.

 

PM’s action

Compounding the issue now is the fact that PM Pohiva has accused two of his senior Ministers of having taken sides and being part of the conspiracy, as he calls it, to oust him from his leadership role.

The fact that he has sacked his deputy in Hon Sovaleni and Hon Lavemaau has been seen by many as a “suicidal move” that could cause him his dreams of returning as Prime Minister at the November elections.

Both Sovaleni and Lavemaau were instrumental in getting Pohiva’s party to form government and ensuring the former school teacher became PM.

Now with two other former senior Cabinet colleagues in Dr Aisake Eke and Fe’ao Vakata having also earlier been sacked from government, the focus will turn to whether the four will back Pohiva again.

Or will they, if they do win their seats again, cross the floor and join the Nobles to form government.

Many here believe both Sovaleni and Dr Eke are already assured their return to Parliament.

The others might have a tougher fight on their hands.

That also might mean the same for the Pohiva and his team.

But one thing is certain – there will be some new faces in Parliament come end of November.

And a new Prime Minister likely to be elected as well.

 

 






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