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MP Piukala’s rhetoric about the king hand picking Noble MPs is a serious threat to our half-cooked democracy

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‘Oku ‘i lalo heni ha lingi (link) ke ke kiliki ai ke ke lau ‘a e fakamatala fakaTonga

EDITORIAL: Member of Parliament Piveni Piukala’s proposal to revoke Tonga’s current nobility electoral system to allow the king to hand pick them for Parliament would be a fatal blow to Tonga’s fragile democracy.

L-R: MP Piveni Piukala, Dr Sūnia Foliaki, Late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, Saia Tūlua and Kaniva Tonga News Editor Kalino Lātū. Photo/Kalino Lātū

It flies in the face of the principle that lies at the heart of our unfinished democracy, which is that the government must reflect the will of the people.

The current electoral system allows members of the 33 nobles to elect their own nine MPs to Parliament.

Before Tonga’s incomplete democratic reforms of 2010, a Constitutional and Electoral Commission (CEC) chaired by the former Chief Justice Gordon Ward was tasked with recommending the best public submissions for the political reforms.

Some of those submissions received by CEC portrayed the election of the nine MPs to Parliament as a big problem to the democratic reforms.  

Many people proposed removing the Nobles from Parliament or having them elected by all eligible voters, not just other Nobles.

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However, the CEC said that although it may seem undemocratic, if elected by the whole electorate, it was likely that the same Nobles would keep being returned to Parliament because voting would be based on ties of kāinga and ha‘a.

The CEC believed that it was better to just keep the Noble MPs being elected by their peers and leave it to see if this practice withstood the test of time.  

The CEC said: “We define democracy by more than the right to elect a representative parliament. Much that truly defines democracy is already enshrined in traditional Tongan values. … at this stage, we feel the continued presence of the Nobles in the new and untried representative Parliament will be accepted by most Tongans as a sensible and, possibly, necessary influence.”  

Unfortunately, the CEC’s other positive recommendations were not adopted after the then Lord Sevele’s government went its own way and approved its own submission through Parliament.

Four years after Wards’ review, Peter Pursglove, a legal consultant in Constitutional Law from Trinidad and Tobago, reviewed the 2010 consultation on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Pursglove’s review largely supported the findings of Ward’s constitutional review.

Pursglove said Tonga’s 2010 constitution, which was produced by Lord Sevele’s government,  was poorly written, promoted secrecy, compromised the role of the judiciary and parts of it may have been illegal.

Last week, Piukala, one of the leading democratic MPs from PTOA bloc, maintained that if the king chose the nine MPs, they would be held more accountable. 

He argued that under his proposal the king would act as a “fakapalanisi”, or a political authority who balanced the Nobility’s role in Parliament and crossing the line into corruption. 

He claimed that in this way good governance could be upheld.

Perils to democracy

Judging the merit of Piukala’s proposal from a democratic check and balance point of view, it is not only fallacious, but it would destroy the energies and efforts of those who pioneered the fight for Tonga’s democracy from 1970s before it came into fruition in 2010. This includes hundreds of thousands of dollars donated by the New Zealand and Australian governments to assist the political reform. 

The purpose of checks and balances in a democracy is to make sure no one power emerges from either the government, or the legislature, the judiciary and or even the media to become dominant and control everybody else. Checks and balances helps maintain good governance and can only work effectively if our political system offers a level playing field where power imbalances can be easily levelled out.

Piukala’s proposal would adversely boost the king’s power with more opportunity to take control of a centralised government through his handpicked noble MPs.

Under our current system the king is barred by the Constitution from getting involved in the Cabinet. However, Piukala’s proposal opens the possibility for the king to have the power to influence Cabinet through his nobles.

Centralised government

If those noble MPs were also elected by the Prime Minster to become Cabinet Ministers, this could mean the power of the king would then extend from the Parliament and indirectly infiltrate the executive branch through these nobles, making a centralised government more unbalanced and unchecked because the king is accountable to no one, according to the Constitution. This would be devastating to Tonga’s fragile democracy.

Centralising power in the king is injurious to our struggle for an open, democratic society. Our society needs to operate on the principles of free speech, which benefits both the opposition as well as those in power. Our society is currently being left in the dark after  the Hu’akavameiliku government told the king his recent letter expressing his disappointment with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence was unconstitutional and the Prime Minister was still confident in the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

This was big news which was also covered by the Pacific region media including Australia and New Zealand. However, the king’s Privy Council and the government have still not released any information to update the media and the public.  This is not a good sign of our democracy and if we allow Piukala’s proposal it would only worsen the situation.

Current problems

Under the current system, the king has not always accepted requests from Prime Ministers for a regular audience to update him on the governments’ operations according to the constitution. It has been alleged that this was because the king was disappointed with the Prime Ministers. We  talked to some of these prime ministers, including late ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, and he said he was willing to discuss the king’s reaction with him if he was  allowed to meet, but this did not happen. The king has yet to appoint ministers nominated by the current Prime Minister a year ago, with no word on why he did not appoint them.

These two simple incidents beg the questions of who is going to hold the king to account for his failure to act quickly and appoint the ministers so that the government can do its job for the people. Who is going to tell the king he was wrong to snub the Prime Ministers who asked for an audience with him?

The nobility

The nobles have already been seen to be injurious to our half-cooked democracy since 2010. The illegal handover of the Chinese $90 million grant to the king’s sister Princess Pilolevu Tuita and her Friendly Islands Satellite Communications Ltd also known as Tongasat was facilitated by the nobility-back government of Lord Tu’ivakanō. Nobles were also allegedly involved in Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa’s failed $400 million roading project.

The sad thing about this is that no one can challenge the king and his nobles. Giving more power to the king can only inflate his already powerful status. For Piukala to make such a presumptuous proposal to allow the king to appoint his nobles to Parliament would only make our current disastrous political situation worse.  Piukala must be reminded that any proposal to improve our currently poor political system must be based on the principles of democracy which is at the core of the people’s will and their rights to elect their leaders.

Fakamatala fakaTonga: Kiliki heni