Call for King to ‘urgently’ refine Tonga democracy

King Tupou VI was the first Tongan monarch crowned under Tonga’s more democratically-elected government. (Mark Tantrum via Governor-General of New Zealand).

Tongan Democrats in New Zealand have called on the King to urgently refine what they describe as the country’s fragile democracy.

They said the memorandum King Tupou VI sent withdrawing his consent to the appointment of two ministers was a serious threat to the democratic system introduced in 2010.

The Democrats said the King’s action tarnished the executive power that had been given to the people.

The Tongan-New Zealand based Democracy and Media for Tonga Political Reform 2010 Committee (DMTPR 2010) said the combination of the roles of the King in relation to the Ministry of His Majesty’s Armed Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the need for the government to fund those ministries through an office headed by Cabinet Ministers did not clash, but promoted a transparent and accountable democracy.

The Committee’s response comes after the Privy Council issued a letter saying King Tupou VI had withdrawn his “confidence and consent” in Defence Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni – who is also the Prime Minister – and Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu, also the tourism minister.

Responding, Acting Prime Minister Sāmiu Kiuta Vaipulu, said the King’s memo was unconstitutional because it went against clause 51(a) of the Constitution, which says the King can only dismiss a Cabinet Minister on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

Vaipulu’s response was strongly supported by the DMTPR 2010 Committee.

Attempts by Kaniva News to reach the Privy Council and the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa for comment have been unsuccessful.

The Democrats said the royal memo was part of recent attempts by the King to thwart those who have pushed for him to move on the democratic reforms which came into fruition 14 years ago. 

About four years after the reform took place in 2010, a legal consultant in Constitutional Law, Peter Pursglove, said Tonga’s Constitution was poorly written, promoted secrecy, compromised the role of the judiciary and parts of it may be illegal.

The controversial Constitution was believed to have been drafted largely by Lord Dalgety, one of the King’s advisors in the Privy Council before it was submitted by Lord Sevele’s government and approved by the Parliament for the reform in 2010.

The DMTPR 2010 Committee, whose members include Tongan democrats, members of the Democratic Party known as Paati Temokalati ‘a e ‘Otuanga’ofa (PTOA) and media personnel in Auckland, paid particular attention to some of the terms used by the Privy Council in the memo to record the King’s disapproval of the two ministers.

The Committee said the term memorandum used in the letter by the Council was defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a note recording something for future use”.

Members of the Committee feared that the King’s memorandum meant that he was not only targeting Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku and Hon. Fekita ‘Utoikamanu, but wanted to use it as a precedent to ensure future Prime Ministers did not nominate any ministers for those two ministries without his consent.

“It is clear this memorandum has no legal or constitutional basis”, Tevita Katoa from the Committee said.

He said the “context of the memo dictates what to do now and in the future”.

In a talatalanoa session held by the Committee before a meeting last week at which Kaniva News was present, the members collectively disagreed with arguments on media that the King was doing the right thing because he still controlled these two portfolios according to the Constitution.

Kātoa said the King’s role as Commander-In-Chief in his Armed Forces was clearly laid out in Clause 36 of the Constitution.

Clause 36 of the Constitution says: “He shall appoint all officers and make such regulations for the training and control of the forces as he may think best for the welfare of the country, but it shall not be lawful for the King to make war without the consent of the Legislative Assembly.”

Kātoa said the King’s Armed Forces was also a Ministry, meaning that it must have an office headed by a minister.

“That minister’s roles included putting submissions to Cabinet on a range of important issues such as budget to pay for His Majesty’s Armed Forces payrolls and expenses,” he said.

He said this included any new legislation about the King’s Forces. It was the duty of the Minister to do that in the Cabinet and in Parliament. The King could not do that because he was not a member of those two government branches.

During the Committee’s talatalanoa session they discussed New Zealand’s Ministry of Defence as an example to compare with the Tongan case.

The Commander-In-Chief is the governor, Cindy Kiro, while the Minister of Defence is Judith Collins, they said.  

“There is no clash in the two roles and the Minister of Defence doesn’t necessarily needs to be a soldier or an expert in the Armed Forces”, the Committee said.

Kātoa said: “It is the same scenario that applies to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Tonga”.

“According to Clause 40 the King shall receive Foreign Ministers and may address the Legislative Assembly in writing regarding the affairs of the Kingdom and matters which he may wish to bring before the Assembly for deliberation”.

“These roles of the King never ever clashed with the roles of the Minister”, Kātoa said.

“We called on the King and his Privy Council to honour the late King George V’s agreement to relinquish his executive power to the people”, the Committee said.

“We humbly and urgently ask the King to continue working closely with his people to refine and improve our democracy as soon as possible and refrain from trying to diminish it in any form and shape”.

The Committee was set up last week in Mangere, Auckland to pursue Tonga’s Political Reform 2010.

It appeared that no one in Tonga had any interest in pushing for the King to refine Tonga’s democracy, they said.

They have warned that they do not support the Hu’akavameiliku government and what they describe as its “infamous” policies, but saw its response to the King’s memo last week as a move forward in promoting Tonga’s democracy and ensuring that the power given to the people must not be taken away.

They said there were indications that King Tupou VI was not in favour of democracy.

“The Pursglove report was said to have been handed to the King in 2014 by the Lord Tu’ivakanō government and the King agreed for the government to work on it”, the Committee said.

“It is about 10 years now since that report and the only thing we can see is that the King attempted to revoke the long-time democracy campaigner ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s government in 2017.

“The King also strongly disagreed with the Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa in 2019 when he asked the King to allow him to be a member of the Privy Council so he could inform him in a timely manner on government matters.

“Tu’i’onetoa also asked the King to transfer the Privy Council’s power to choose the Commissioner of Police and give it to the Minister of Police as is normal in other democratic countries.

“The King lectured Hon. Tu’i’onetoa and told him in Tongan “taki taha tu’u pe ‘i hono laini”, figuratively meaning “just stay in your Cabinet and I will keep to my own Privy Council”, the Committee said. Members of the committee include the long-time campaigner Viliami Sōane who was instrumental in setting up the Tongan New Zealand Society for the Political Reforms in Tonga, in Auckland in 2004. Members of that society were staunch supporters of the late ‘Akilisi Pōhiva who has been remembered by many after his death as the ‘beacon of democracy.’

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