Culture v corruption: Challenge for Tonga’s anti-corruption commissioner

By Illiesa Tora of and is republished with permission

Aerial view of Tongatapu. Photo: Expedia

Understanding where culture and corruption needs to be separated will be the biggest challenge for Tonga’s first anti-corruption commissioner.

James Christopher LaHatte, a New Zealand barrister and mediator, was confirmed to lead the Tongan Anti-Corruption Commission in Parliament last week.

LaHatte was appointed to the role by King Tupou VI in a Privy Council meeting earlier this month.

He told RNZ Pacific what might be right culturally in Tonga maybe deemed as corruption somewhere else.

“I think the first thing I have to do is spend a lot of time listening to people,” he said.

“I need to learn how Tongan culture is different from what I’ve learned in New Zealand and other places and put that cultural understanding into the concept of what is corruption.

“Because I’m very conscious, that behaviour that might be seen as culturally appropriate, would be seen in other places as corruption.”

He used the widely accepted “gift giving” culture in Pacific nations as one example that he said needs to be looked at.

“So gift giving, for example, I’m aware is a big part of Tongan culture,” he said.

“There’s going to be a line sometimes between what is appropriate and culturally required, and something which goes beyond that.

“So I’m going to have to learn a lot about how these things work, so that I have an understanding of what is corruption and what is culturally safe.”

The culture of gift giving was recently part of public discussions during court cases where a number of Tongan MPs lost their seats because they were found guilty of what were actions of gift giving during election campaigns.

He said there would be a lot of education and awareness work done so people understand what corruption is and how it is defined.

“I think my primary role is really one of education so that people understand what should and shouldn’t happen. And then there’s an element of deterrence as well,” he said.

“From time to time, it would be necessary to take steps to identify corrupt practices, and to ensure that that’s made known and publicised so it is discussed at all levels so that people understand whether that should or should not have happened.”

Winning trust

LaHatte also said he and his team will need to win the people’s trust in the commission and their work, which will be critical for their work.

“People will need to trust the commission and have the confidence that what they report can be investigated and if found guilty those involved would be dealt with according to law.”

He said the office has been on the statute books for about 17 years.

“People tend not to have necessarily the faith and trust in the office until it can be demonstrated that it has a strong place in parliamentary and governance in Tonga.”

LaHatte said he is looking forward to the challenge and taking up office in Nuku’alofa on 1 July, starting his four-year term.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku said LaHatte’s appointment is a big step forward for the Kingdom.

“This is a great milestone for Tonga now with the appointment of the first anti-corruption commissioner.”

The Anti-Corruption Commission Act was first enacted in Parliament in 2007.

But Parliament only passed the Anti-Corruption Bill in February 2023, after Hu’akavameiliku and his government pushed it through, which allowed for the setting up of the anti-corruption watchdog.

LaHatte has been a practising ombudsman, mediator, and lawyer in New Zealand and overseas for over 40 years.

He said his experience in the different works that he has been involved in over the years had prepared him for the new post.

‘Long overdue’ – lawyer

A local lawyer and former political adviser to two Tongan prime ministers has welcomed the new appointment.

“Our Anti-Corruption Act came into force in 2007 and yet no one has been appointed to the post,” Lopeti Senituli said.

“His Majesty had recommended someone whilst ‘Akilisi Pohiva was PM, but he vetoed it because he felt that particular person was too close to the Privy Council.

“The appointment is welcomed because right now only the Office of the Ombudsman handles allegations of corruption but their area of responsibility is limited to government and statutory bodies.

He said the Anti-Corruption Commission has more power and covers government and private sector.

“The appointment of our Anti-Corruption Commissioner is long overdue.”

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