PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
UP CLOSE WITH TONGA’S PRINCE TUIPELEHAKE
NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, May 21) – Prince Tu'ipelehake, a nephew of Tonga's king, was Chairman of the Whole House committee of the Tongan Legislature, last year, but failed to win re-election in March to the Nobles seats, after moving his electorate from Ha'apai to Tongatapu. During his time in the House he supported calls for political reform and was outspoken in defending freedom of speech in Tonga.
In a recent television interview he spoke about the development of his idea for a National Committee on Political Reform, which he sees as a way forward from Tonga's current political confusion.
The following is a translated extract from the interview in Tongan by reporter Katalina Tohi and Matangi Tonga publisher Pesi Fonua, for the weekly television program of the Media Council Inc., broadcast on Television Tonga on Saturday May 21:
(Katalina) - What is your assessment of the new composition of the Tongan Parliament, with the new People's Ministers and the newly elected People's Representatives? How do you think the House will function in the coming session?
There are hopes that there will be success in the government's move to appoint ministers from the elected members of the House, particularly with the two members from the People's Representatives table. But we will find out when parliament opens. There is talk that the two People's Ministers will turn their backs on their colleagues, but I disagree, and there are already signs, particularly with the Acting Prime Minister, Feleti, that he has already started working on a number of initiatives, which will become known later.
(Katalina) - Did you want to be re-elected into parliament, or had you achieved what you wanted to achieve ,and were you ready to move on and do something else?
I was preparing to go back into the House. I had discussions with some of the nobles, and I was asked if I wanted to go back into the House, and my reply was, yes. There was something that I had achieved in the House, a resolution (for the formation of a National Committee on Political Reform) that was passed by the House, and it has also been approved by Cabinet. The answer to your question, is yes I had a working agenda that I wanted to pursue further in the House.
(Pesi) - The Resolution that was passed by the House for the establishment of a National Committee on Political Reform, was a major achievement last year, and you would have liked to have been in the House this year to see the committee established?
My motion that was passed by the House then, was presented to Cabinet as a resolution. The Cabinet established a sub-committee to work on the resolution, and they invited me in February to clarify the principles of the Resolution, which I did. Yesterday, I had confirmation that my discussion with the sub-Committee has been accepted by the Cabinet and the National Committee on Political Reform will be formed.
(Pesi) - Can you give us brief summary of the basic principles of the Resolution?
You may recall that the People's Representatives tabled a motion in the House for a referendum last year. I knew that that motion would not be passed, so I spoke with some of the People's Representatives, and expressed my opinion that their approach was confrontational against the government, and I didn't think they would accept it, and they didn't. About the same time I was working on this plan. I was certain that my approach would be more acceptable to government, because the National Committee approach was not too confrontational.
(Pesi) - So your plan was for a Committee to amend the Constitution and to initiate other political reform programs?
No. The National Committee on Political Reforms fundamental principal cannot be changed since it has already been accepted by both the House and the Cabinet. So in this coming parliamentary session all they have to do is to implement the program. It is against the Regulations for the House to debate issues that have already been passed.
The membership composition of the Committee is two representatives each from the PRs and the Nobles Representatives. In my original motion there was no government representative, because of my belief for the committee to be independent from any government interference, but it was an after thought, which I hope will be approved by the House for the Prime Minister to appoint a representative. There will also be four public representatives, people with experience and academic qualifications to be part of the committee. The members of this committee will elect the chairman, the deputy chairperson and their secretariat. I am planning for an eight members committee with five staff, and yesterday I confirmed with the Prime Minister's office that the membership idea has been accepted by Cabinet.
(Pesi) - So with regards to political reform, the mandate of this committee will be very broad?
Remember, all this will be debated but, of course, I have thought all these through to cut down on time spent in debating. There are three options for terms of references, or the fundamental principals for the committee to abide by. Once the committee is established they will then have to organise public meetings for Tongans, and foreigners to attend, to express their views, in relation to the working mandate of the committee. For example, if the working agenda is on an agricultural legislation, then you can't turn up with something on fisheries. There will also be a restriction on speech time, and most importantly proposals must be in writing, because at the end the committee has to present reports to Government and to Parliament. I also moved that the report from the committee with proposals and suggestions does not obligate government to take action, if we forced government to take action I don’t think the committee idea would have been allowed to develop to where it has got to.
(Pesi) - You mentioned that you want the least involvement by government, but how are you planning to finance the operation of this committee?
The money will come from the government, but it will be a grant from an overseas source.
(Pesi) - I just want to ask you, why in the last election you decided to stand for election in Tongatapu, instead of Ha'apai?
We have a new noble in Ha'apai, and my thinking was that he may get in, at the same time I was certain that there was not going to be a by-election for Ha'apai, but I was certain that there was going to be a by-election for Tongatapu because of the nature of Tongatapu Nobles. That was what happened, but I still could not get in.
(Katalina) - We have put the election behind, but I wonder if you have ever thought about being a candidate for the people?
I don't know if it is allowed, but it is a good question.
(Katalina) - We now have two parties and they appear to be having difficulty dealing with each other, and now you are talking about a committee. Can you make a comment on the political party issue?
That is the nature of political parties, offering you options to chose from, and it is also natural for them to have differences, but I think they will unite on issues, which urgently need to be addressed.
(Pesi) - With regards to these parties do you think it is timely or would it be more appropriate to get the National Committee established, which would then map out a political reform program, amend laws and the Constitution before we move on into establishing parties?
No, I think we should start getting used to how the party system works. Remember there is no institution where we could go and learn about political parties, we can only learn by practice. The laws and the Constitution may follow later.
(Pesi) - You are probably aware of the main concern by people at the moment about the involvement of the Royals in business. In the case of the Crown Prince Tupouto'a it has been pointed out that his involvement in business is said to be the major cause of the political upheaval at the moment. What is your view on the matter, the Royals in business?
This is just my personal view. I think it is right and proper for Tupouto'a to be in business, but the nature of his involvement needs to be clarified, and to separate it from businesses that are directly involved in the day to day life of the people, like businesses which have been given the monopoly rights. I think he should stay away from businesses like that. Like utility services, it is very sensitive, but with regards to getting involved in business, there is nothing wrong with it, but the nature of the business that he is involved in is what concerns people.
(Pesi) - Will issues like this be in the working agenda of the National Committee?
As I explained before, the committee will work according to the wishes of the people, we are not going to go there with a set of ideas for the people to follow. The Committee will work on concerns voiced by the people.
(Katalina) - The protest march as a way for the people to express their feeling, is there any other way that you may suggest other than marching?
That was why I proposed for the formation of this National Committee in order for government to hear the concerns of the people, an opportunity for a dialogue, and it is satisfying for the people to know that there is a dialogue with their leaders and they are listening to their concerns. By not listening to the people's concerns is the reason why we are where we are now, therefore I urge members of parliament to action the formation of the Committee. I am not saying that if the committee was formed there would not have been a protest march, but it would be satisfying for the people to know that there are avenues where they can air their concerns. The presentation of letters of petition I think we are all very familiar with, and also the response to it, but with this committee the people's concern will go straight to Cabinet.
The thing about this committee, it is for all Tongans, including overseas Tongans.
I have designed a working program for committee members to be split in two and take a consultative tour overseas and consult with Tongans there. One group will go to New Zealand and the other will go to Hawaii and the West Coast of the USA. All this consultation work will be carried out within five weeks. The consultative meeting will be carried out where there are a lot of Tongans, in New Zealand it will be Auckland and Christchurch; in Australia, it will be Canberra, Sydney and so on. In the USA it will be Seattle, San Francisco, LA and Salt Lake City; in Hawaii, it will be Honolulu and maybe Maui. The committee will then return to Tonga and carry out similar meetings in the Niuas, Vava'u, Ha'apai, 'Eua and Tongatapu.
(Pesi) - Following the research and the compiling of information by this committee, what will then happen, we will then have the referendum or what do you envisage will happen?
The committee will compile a report with copies, one for government and the other for Parliament where it will be discussed, and a way forward will be decided.
(Pesi) - There has been a lot of talk and wishes for a committee of this kind to be established. I remembered when you presented this motion in the House and how well it was supported by members of the House, and it also received the support of Cabinet Ministers. Were you surprised at how well the idea was supported?
I consulted the Crown Prince Tupouto'a in January while he was Prince Regent and asked for his view on such a committee, and if it was worthwhile pursuing. He said he had been briefed on the idea, then I gave him some background information about the committee, as an approach that would enable government to establish a better relationship with the people. He said that it was a good idea and it should be further pursued by Cabinet.
(Pesi) - So the next step is to establish the committee?
As I said, there is a need for the committee to be established, but the first thing in the working agenda of the House is to reply to His Majesty's message from the throne, following taht will be the estimated budget and related legislation. But it is for the Speaker to decide if there are urgent matters that have to be debated on by the House, then it can be presented to the House. I think a one morning session will be ample time, because all that is needed is for the people's and the nobles' representatives to select their two members each.
(Katalina) - With what you are trying to do, do you think that it may be wrongly conceived by others that you are rebellious?
It is difficult, because the way political power is structured in this country, political power rests with His Majesty the King and the Royal Family. I am well aware of it and I have had discussions with nobles with very good ideas. But the problem is how to convey those ideas, it is not possible because there are concerns that it may appear rebellious, or pushing to take a leading role. The same kind of problem is also present within the Cabinet. I remember Clive said something to that respect in the House, he said that he had an idea but he worried that the others may say that he wanted to be Prime Minister. I am well aware of all these constraints but then I decided to make a move, and I don't care. What is the use of remaining inside if you can't say or do what you think should be done.
(Katalina) - There is a lot of talk about consumption tax, and it was tabled into parliament while you were in the House last year. What is your view on the Consumption Tax?
I saw on TV Tonga one evening the person responsible for the Consumption Tax, Sefita Tangi, explaining the government position on the tax. With regards to the growers and the fishermen government is saying that they will be charged zero rating, meaning that they pay the CT then they will be refunded later after it was confirmed that they had exported their products overseas. There are a number of reasons why I disagreed with this approach, and I will tell you some. First, with this approach there is favouritism, because it excludes growers and fishermen who do not export. A grower who grows for the local market is excluded and yet his efforts feed him and other members of the public but he has been penalised by government, because he is not exporting. The 15% that government put on him, making it even more difficult for him to compete with imported goods. Remember that in overseas countries government assists their farmers, but a local grower will find it even more difficult to compete because his own government is making it virtually impossible for him to compete with imported goods. I also think that it should be looked at carefully because the amount of money that government thinks they have lost if growers and fishermen are exempted may not be as much as they think, because 15% is a big rise. I am aware that the CT is prerequisite for Tonga to become a member of the WTO, and government is trying to find a revenue source because of the elimination of the Port and Service Taxes and others. I suggested that they keep searching, instead of punishing the local growers and fishermen who are feeding us.
(Pesi) - When the CT was presented to the House last year, there was an understanding that it was going to be introduced together with an amendment to the Income Tax Act and the Customs Duty Act, there was also an estimated figure of the revenue to be collected, of about $25 million. Now we are told that the CT is to be enforced and 18 months later the other two legislations will be tabled into the House?
I'll just give you some background information. There was very little time available for debate on the CT, and secondly to that, we are all aware of the composition of the House and the outcome of any debates. The debate may be good but we all know what the outcome will be (government always win). But the Minister of Finance has a working program, and he is implementing them in stages. But I think it is good for us to point out what we are not happy with so that they can have another look at it.
(Pesi) - You mentioned how despite a good debate but we know that the outcome will be different (meaning the government always wins). You know with the four ministers who have been appointed from the elected members, do you think it will make any difference to the voting in the House?
I think it will improve the situation. For example the two people's representatives will now see what it is like in government, but at the same time they have with them an understanding of how the people's representatives function so when they speak in Cabinet they express an inside knowledge from the table that they came from, and I think it will bring a greater understanding to the debate in the House.
(Pesi) - What is your view on the concern expressed by some that the two people's ministers have turned their backs on the people?
As I had mentioned earlier I think we should give them a chance, and wait for Parliament to be opened. Government has given us an opportunity and it was accepted by these two People Representatives, but now they have been accused. I think we should give them a chance.
May 23, 2005
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