Unfinished business in Tonga's politcal reform needs attention says expert | Pacific Beat

Unfinished business in Tonga's politcal reform needs attention says expert

Unfinished business in Tonga's politcal reform needs attention says expert

Updated 30 April 2014, 18:33 AEST

The constitutional reforms which led to the introduction of democracy in Tonga have had a dramatic impact but there is still significant unfinished business, according to one of the region's leading constitutional experts.

Tonga held its first democratic elections in 2010 and will go to the polls again in November this year.

Dr Guy Powles, from Monash University, has just launched the updated edition of his book ' The Kingdom of Tonga's Path to Democracy'.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Dr Guy Powles, author

POWLES: Prior to the reform there were nine nobles representatives and nine representatives of the people joined by twelve people who were ministers appointed by the king, appointed for as long as the king liked to have them there as ministers. So if you added twelve to nine you got a huge majority in the parliament. What has happened now under the reform is that the parliament is much the same size, the number of people's representatives has been significantly increased to seventeen, still nine nobles there, but of course there are no king's appointees superimposed. So the ministers, the cabinet is now formed from within the elected membership.

GARRETT: Even though the commoners had the majority of the seats, they didn't win the Prime Ministership. Did that surprise people?

POWLES: Well, it is really a question of organisation. The nine nobles who were elected at the same time were rather better organised so as a voting bloc they were in a strong position. There is also the question of leadership, perhaps lack of clarity on the part of the people's representatives as to who their leader would be. That helps to explain why there is now a noble Prime Minister and, of course, nobles in the cabinet along with people's representatives.

GARRETT: You say there is unfinished business with political and constitutional reform in Tonga. What are you looking at exactly?

POWLES: Well, the dramatic change has occurred. The door has been opened. What is not quite so clear, and this is why I have written this book, which I hope with the constitution attached will be an opportunity to see exactly what has happened. The devolution of executive authority has not been complete. For example, under the current law the monarch appoints and sacks the judges and the attorney-general, the monarch is the commander-in-chief who controls the armed forces, which are called His Majesty's Armed Forces, and there are a number of other ways in which the authority of the king can be exercised.

GARRETT: So what potential problems does that hold for Tonga?

POWLES: Well it all depends what you think. As in any country there is a whole range of opinion. The election which is coming up now in November will to some extent test that opinion but a man would be a fool to try to guess just where the balance will finish up. I am speaking as a constitutional lawyer when I say that the constitution does need to be studied in detail because there are areas there of what one might call unfinished business, that is to say where the original principle hasn't been carried through, that is the devolution of executive authority and where, one would perhaps, see more energy put into the development of open and accountable government and the mechanisms for promoting that.

GARRETT: Is this unfinished business causing problems at the moment and is now the time to fix it? Or is it better to wait until further down the track?

POWLES: Well, I think the question of clarity of what the constitution means is something that can't wait. There will be serious misunderstandings if the position isn't clarified. As far as the other unfinished business, and I should have mentioned, of course, those people in the community who would like to see the special electorate for nobles abolished, some people would say that is unfinished business. I am not a Tongan and I am not prepared to say that is a high priority but it is a very significant viewpoint and it will be very interesting to see in the elections coming up how seriously the nobles consider this to be a threat. The possibilities for changing the law in other regards are not very great in the sense that there is still the situation that the king can veto legislation. It is a veto which is seldom used. It is kept in reserve and people are by and large not too concerned about it but if the community becomes more divided and these issues become more stark and obvious, the question of how the king deals with legislation that is put before him to assent to or veto could become very important, and finally I would just mention one thing that hasn't been changed and that is the special privilege that nobles have where it comes to constitutional amendment that affects their rights. And there are limitations on the amendments procedures where that is concerned. So these are matters which are still there. The extent to which they will bubble up in the next election is anybody's guess.


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