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Tonga has been locked in a political standoff between the country’s King Tupou VI and Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni Hu’akavameiliku which erupted into a heated row in Parliament this week with two MPs being suspended. Here Kaniva News editor Kalino Latu gives his recent reaction to an ultimatum by the Tongan nobles.

EDITORIAL: By Kalino Latu, editor of Kaniva Tonga

Tonga’s nobles have demanded the Prime Minister and his Minister of Foreign Affairs resign immediately in order to assuage King Tupou VI’s disappointment with their ministerial roles.

The letter, which was purportedly signed by Lord Tu’ivakanō, described Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku’s refusal to accept the King’s show of power as very concerning and intimidating the peace of the country.

“We are the king’s cultural preservers (‘aofivala). Therefore, we propose that you and your government respect the king’s desire,” the letter read in Tongan.

“The king has withdrawn his confidence and consent from you as Defence Minister as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Tourism Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu.

“We urge you to resign immediately from the Ministry of Defence as well as Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu to resign from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism”.

The letter demanded a response from the Prime Minister no later than February 27.

The letter came after the King said earlier this month in a memo that he no longer supported Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku as the Minister for His Majesty’s Armed Forces and Hon. Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu as the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Tourism.

PM still confident
Responding, the government said the Prime Minister was still confident in the Minister of Foreign Affairs and that the King’s wish clashed with the Constitution.

While the King’s nobles are free to express their opinion on the issue, some people may think that the lack of references to the Constitution to support their argument in their letter was more provoking and inciting than what they allege Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku has done.

This is because the Prime Minister said he was responding according to what the related clause in the Constitution said about His Majesty’s concerns. It is the Constitution which ensures that those who make decisions are making them on behalf of the public and will be held accountable to the people they serve.

Some people may see that the nobility’s departure from the constitution and citing the Tongan practice of faka’apa’apa’i e finangalo ‘o e tu’i (respecting the King’s wish) means the nobles are urging us to dump Tonga’s Constitution and live by the law of the jungle in which those who are strong and apply ruthless self-interest are most successful.

Our Tongan tradition of faka’apa’apa (respect the King no matter what) has no clear system of rules, limits and boundaries for us to follow, which leaves the door open for the powerful to practice immorality and unlawful activities.

Since the King’s memo was leaked to the public, some have argued that it was explicitly unconstitutional. There is nothing in the Constitution to say that the King has to show that he gives his consent or has confidence in a ministerial nominee proposed by the Prime Minister before he appoints them.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku
Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku . . . under royal pressure. Image: Kaniva News

However, some argued that there was nothing wrong with the King expressing his wish as he did to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The problem with this kind of attitude is that it urges the King to publicly show his disagreement with the Constitution whenever he wants.

Breaching royal oath?
The King could be seen in such a situation to be breaching his royal oath which, according to the Constitution, clause 34, says: “I solemnly swear before Almighty God to keep in its integrity the Constitution of Tonga and to govern in conformity with the laws thereof.”

The word “integrity” included in the Constitution is worth mentioning here.

It is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change”.

Some people may believe that for the King to have integrity in the constitution, he must have a strong sense of judgment and trust in his own accord.

To keep the Constitution honest the King must desist from saying things to the public which are not written in the Constitution and may cause concern and confusion.

The best example was his memo. It has caused a stir among the public but what was most concerning is that no one knows what was the reason behind the King’s withdrawal of his consent and confidence in the Prime Minister and his Minister of Foreign Affairs.

We have previously seen His Majesty make several wrong decisions which are said to have been influenced by his Privy Councillors or his nobility members, including Lord Tu’aivakanō’s abortive advice to dissolve the government in 2017.

Do the right thing
The nobility must do the right thing and advise the King according to the Constitution and not our old fashioned cultural practices.

It was the Tu’ivakano government which hired Commonwealth Legal Consultant Peter Pursgloves to review our 2010 constitution, which he said was the “poorest written Constitution” among all Commonwealth countries.

The Tu’ivakanō government vowed to follow Pursglove’s report and made significant changes to the Constitution which was said to have been agreed by the King in 2014.

When the ‘Akilisi Pohiva government ousted the Tu’ivakanō government in late 2014 they processed the Pursglove report and submitted it to Parliament through six new bills to be approved. However, it was the same people in the Tu’ivakanō government who strongly opposed the submission from the Opposition bench. They went further and falsely accused Pōhiva of secretly trying to remove some of the King’s powers.

Critics argued that this was because of the nobility’s long-time hatred against Pōhiva because of his tireless campaign to remove the executive power of the King and give it to a democratic government.

The nobles later apologised and withdrew their accusation against Pōhiva in the House after months of debates and public consultations. They finally said they wanted to support the submission after Pōhiva revealed in the House his government  has lodged an application for a judicial review of the decision made by Lord Tu’ilakepa to block the new bills.

That submission has yet to be approved by the House and the nobility has a duty to push for it to be approved. This would bring Tonga a more democratic system that would help keep the King and the government at peace.

The nobles must refrain from using cultural practices to resolve our constitutional issues as that would send us back to the dark ages.

This editorial was published by Kaniva Tonga on February 29 and is published by Asia Pacific Report with permission.

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