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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry reports
close this folderTonga
View the documentHoping to maintain harmony
View the documentInterview, Prime Minister Baron Vaea
View the documentProfile
View the documentInterview with people’s representative, Teisina Fuko
View the documentSeeking business overseas
View the documentTonga-EU cooperation
View the documentSwitching on the Iights

Interview with people’s representative, Teisina Fuko

'There is much more political awareness'

People's representative, Teisina Fuko offers an alternative view

While Tonga has no political parties, and the main levers of power remain in the hands of the monarch, it would be a mistake to conclude that there is no questioning of the status quo in this small Pacific kingdom. As The Courier discovered on its recent visit, Tongans are happy to speak openly about their political system and to criticise (or praise) aspects of it me local media may not be particularly extensive but it nonetheless allowe for different viewpoints to be expressed, including criticism of the authorities.

Those who advocate political reforms in Tonga face something of an uphill struggle. There is no overwhelming demand for change and although the lever of popular support for the current system is not easy to judge, there appears to be widespread acquiescence - which effectively amounts to the same thing.

In recent years, the focus of 'opposition' has tended to be within the ranks of the people's representatives who sit in Parliament We spoke to one of these elected members, Teisina Fuko, who comes from the Ha'apai island group and began by asking how democratic the thought the system was.

- I would say about 50%. Up until the 1970s, the system was very traditional but we now seem to be westernising quite quickly. People are returning from overseas with different ideas and this is having an impact on the way we are governed.

· Do you think you will ultimately have a Parliament whose members are all elected by universal franchise?

- I would say it is more certain now than ever before. There is much more political awareness. We see it in the schools, where children are being taught to think independently. There are also the new economic trends - commercialisation and the focus on foreign earnings which imply the need for modernisation.

· You sound quite enthusiastic about the 'westernisation' process. Are you not concerned about the possible negative aspects in terms of the survival of your traditional culture?

- I think we have to strike a balance. We mustn't go to extremes. Our culture and traditions are important but there are new things we need to take on board and some old habits we should drop. Take business opportunities: we have to be more democratic in this area. If one group has all the power then they will tend to favour their friends which isn't necessarily efficient. What it boils down to is a lack of checks and balances.

Given the present economic difficulties, I also think we need to move quite quickly. I recently wrote an article arguing that the King should transfer his power to appoint ministers to the people. Ministers should be elected so that they can be accountable to the taxpayer. We are a close-knit family here and there is no question of getting rid of the monarchy. But we need to sit down and hammer out a compromise which will allow us to improve our economy and make it more competitive.

Let me give you a practical example. Defence is now third on our list of priorities. That doesn't make sense to me. We would be better spending the money on economic development. We also need to boost the private sector so it can create jobs, instead of tying its hands. At present, 50% of our revenue goes on paying civil servants. What for 7 It may create employment, but it is not productive. So the government has to be minimised. Having said this, there are some positive signs. I am glad, for example, to see new blood being brought into the ministerial team.

· Parliament is currently composed of three groups - twelve ministers, nine nobles and nine people's representatives. On paper, that suggests that no group can dominate?

- Yes, but the ministers and nobles often work together and we are outvoted. It is difficult to imagine the nobles saying 'no' to the King although, to be fair, they do sometimes abstain and some of them recognise the need for certain reforms to the system.

· Turning to the economy, which areas do you think offer the best development prospects?

- Tonga's potential lies in fishing. We are an island nation that has always depended on the resources of the sea and we have the necessary labour force. What the people need is the know-how - advanced technologies to develop this sector. We also have to set up credit programmes so that people can invest in boats and equipment. I believe we should spend a lot more on fishing.

Unfortunately the government does not take the same view. It has put a lot of resources into small industries, airlines and so on. Yet the reality is that these sectors are in decline. Manufacturing has fallen and so have agricultural exports. Fishing is the only sector that is expanding.

· What about the prospects for agriculture?

- I think we have reached the limit in this sector. There is very little scope for expansion. I also believe we should be concentrating on what we can produce to use locally. There is very little more we can do in terms of commercial exploitation. Tonga is somewhat overcrowded and we cannot use too many chemicals because the water table is so low.

· One local issue, which presumably has economic implications, concerns the possible expulsion of foreigners who have been here for a certain amount of time. Apparently, the decision has been taken not to renew certain residence permits. What is your view on this?

- I think Tonga should encourage skilled people who are here to stay. We should use make use of their skills, particularly where they have expertise that is lacking locally. At the same time, there are some people here who just came for a visit and ended up staying without doing anything very productive. There are also a number who came after the coup in Fiji and I think we should give them some leeway.

On the whole, I don't think it is a big problem. Tonga has traditionally been very liberal in the application of its immigration law. We have never been colonised so we tend not to have a suspicion of foreigners. And whatever we do must be in accordance with the law.

· Could you sum up your vision for the future?

- You only need to look around you to see that we have a youthful population here: a lot of young people who need to be catered for. We are investing heavily in education which I think is good but we need to do more to adapt to the changing world. We were peaceful in the past because most Tongans were on roughly the same level in terms of wealth. Now the poor are getting poorer while the rich get richer. This could lead to an increase in social tensions. With a more democratic system, we should be able to close the gap and work for a peaceful and more prosperous future.