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Tonga Big Picture

Tonga was one of the first countries to receive a written constitution. In 1875 King George 1 gave constitutional guarantees such as rights and the form of government. The reform movement of the 1800s gave Tongan’s freedom from serfdom. The form of government confirmed in the constitution introduced by George 1 was a monarchy. Early in the 2000s reformers, including King George V, pressed successfully for the form of Tonga’s government to become a constitutional monarchy and a Parliamentary democracy.

The general election of 2010 was the first opportunity Tongan electors had to elect members of Parliament who in turn had the right to elect the prime minister. King George V had said he wanted the monarch to give away the right to decide what happened in government – the people should take that right and responsibility. Some of Tonga’s people had also advocated for such political reform. King George V had appointed a political reform oriented businessman, Dr Feleti Sevele, a commoner, to be Prime Minister.

The constitution after 2010 leaves the monarch some powers, particularly in support of judicial independence. In Tonga’s culture the monarchy, according to history, tradition and convention, is important in the society.

After the initial 21st century political reforms nobles still had special political and other rights. The majority in the 2010 Parliament elected a noble, Lord Tu’ivakano, to be the first prime minister under the modern reform arrangements. The King appointed nobles as Speaker, who chaired Parliament and had to maintain the confidence of Parliamentarians, the majority of whom are commoners – peoples’ representatives. By 2012 a 28 year old noble, Lord Fakafanua had become Speaker. Nobles have significant land rights – and a Royal Commission on Land could lead to some change.

The prime minister appointed nobles and commoners to his initial post 21st century political reform cabinets, successfully reduced the number of government agencies and survived his first vote of no confidence. He devolved district and town officer administration away from the office of the prime minister to the minister of internal affairs, who introduced some local government reform. The majority of the citizens of Tonga live in Tongatapu, and the majority of those live in Nuku’alofa. Other Tongans live in villages, some on lightly populated remote outer islands.

The slimming down of government administration coincided with policies to foster freedom of information, to increase the role of the private sector and to focus more on agriculture, fisheries, tourism and other economic development opportunities. Overseas Tongans have sent remittances home when they could – and could not afford, have helped the export of Tongan agricultural exports, invested in houses and in other ways in Tonga.

The early years of Prime minister Lord Tu’ivakano’s government were marked by heavy dependence on foreign donors to fund public expenditure, and media commentary suggested the country would need visionary economic development policies for the future.

Individual people’s representatives outside government sometimes took ministerial posts but no political party of MPs presented themselves as an opposition offering an alternative government a year before the 2014 general election.

No women were elected to Parliament in 2010, although former attorney-general ‘Alisi Taumoepeau was among candidates, and Dr ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki was co-opted as minister of education into the cabinet. The political and economic empowerment of women continues to draw public comment – Speaker Fakafanua identified cultural challenges but supported some initiatives such as a women’s mock Parliament to foster empowerment.

More people of Tongan descent live in other countries than live in Tonga  – some of whom show an interest in political participation in their country of origin and their new country of residence. The Tongan diaspora includes New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Not so many non Tongans have residency in Tonga. Tonga has a much wider set of government to government relations.  Some of the Tongans in the diaspora have recently taken up Tonga’s dual citizenship rights, some have formed political parties overseas and have qualified for Tongan residency, stood in Tongan elections or just advocated for particular policies for Tonga.

This report, from a Pacific Islands Citizenship Education Capacity Building Programme 2013-2016 (PICE) series in from Anthony Haas, Asia Pacific Economic News representative in the NZ Parliament’s Press Gallery and Director, Centre for Citizenship Education), is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation and the Tongan Office of the Clerk.

Opinion is the responsibility of Anthony Haas,, not of the supporting institutions.

Updated 22 October 2013