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Providing impartial public service advice for governments of Tonga: intro

Tonga is grappling with the challenge of how to handle a neutral public service – it is not alone.

The Tonga Democratic Labour Party is organising a petition against a proposed amendment to Tonga’s Public Service Act that would affect any public servant contesting the November 2010 general election, according to a Radio New Zealand report on September 1, 2010.

The general election is a further step in Tonga’s evolution as a Parliamentary democracy in which electors chose the majority of MPs, who in turn select a Prime Minister who appoints ministers to be the Kingdom’s government.

If passed by Tonga’s Parliament, the amendment would force public servants to resign first before registering as election candidates, rather than taking leave of absence.

The party’s deputy chair, Mele Amanaki, says the move is unconstitutional.

She says “It will restrain the freedom of the public servants who are Tongan nationals to do what they want. Because in our constitution it allows Tonga nationals to do what they want, even at the political level. There is a lack of consultation with the public servants and what we are going to do is to submit a petition to Parliament not to accept this”.

Mele Amanaki says there is a lot of public support for their petition.

Centre for Citizenship Education (CCE) interviews show that Tongan advisers have been considering a wider range of issues as they reviewed practice and change. They faced the reality that a significant proportion of senior public servants were considering standing for Parliament in Tonga’s historic 2010 general elections.

Tonga is not alone in needing a loyal public service that can give fair and frank professional advice to whoever is appointed by the Prime Minister to be a cabinet minister.

Public servants have judgments to make.  These judgments are necessary in many aspects of the close relationships to which they are entrusted with ministers under normal conditions.

The judgments are even more delicate for those public servants who decide to campaign for seats in the Parliament, fail, and offer to return to senior public service roles.

Ministers need a professional, impartial public service, represented by a chief executive, willing and able to give options and advice from which ministers and their cabinet colleagues can make choices.

Sharing Pacific citizens’ experience
The CCE, a Wellington based charitable trust, has begun to assemble information and analysis on how Pacific citizens grapple with the challenge of providing impartial public service advice to governments.

A CCE project team, supported by the London based Commonwealth Foundation, spent mid 2010 in Tonga, helping identify the will, building capacity and identifying models for citizenship education.

CCE’s research on impartial public service advice began with interviews with Tongan ministers, public servants and lawyers and continued in Wellington with New Zealand academics.

Additional initial resources include:
•    Impartial public service advice for governments:
o    the role of the public service in a democracy
o    public servants and elections
o    the case of Tonga
by Associate Professor in the Victoria University of Wellington School of Government, Graham Hassall, with additional reporting by CCE Director Anthony Haas

•    New Zealand public service code of conduct, available on the web site of the
State Services Commission
o    FIRST PRINCIPLE
* Public servants should fulfil their lawful obligations to
the Government with professionalism and integrity.
o    SECOND PRINCIPLE
* Public servants should perform their official duties
honestly, faithfully and efficiently, respecting the rights of the public and their colleagues.
o    THIRD PRINCIPLE
* Public servants should not bring the Public Service into disrepute through their private activities.

Future research and communication on impartial public service advice for governments of Pacific citizens can be informed by the evolution of the Westminster system of government in the UK, the ways the system has been applied and changed elsewhere, the political cultures of Pacific nations and citizenship education about how the government works locally.

From Anthony Haas, Asia Pacific Economic News representative in New Zealand’s Parliamentary Press Gallery, publisher at DecisionMaker Publications Ltd, Honorary Fellow in the Victoria University of Wellington School of Government and Director of the Centre for Citizenship Education, with reporting from Radio New Zealand. www.citizenshipeducation.net, email: ahaas@decisionmaker.co.nz