Court battle looming between Government and Tonga Sports Council

'E iku hopo 'a e Pule'anga Tonga mo e Tonga Sports Council makatu'unga mei he lipooti 'a e 'Atita Seniale

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By Kalafi Moala

Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The Government of Tonga and the Tonga Sports Council (TSC) are in a bitter dispute that is bound to end up in court. This has to do with the order from Government for the resignation of all the Board of Directors, headed by Chairman, ‘Ikani Taliai; and the possible dismantling of the sporting management body.

The main reason behind the Government’s move is the allegation of financial irregularities and mismanagement with the sporting body as revealed in the Auditor’s Report. These included the inability for TSC to produce proper financial records. It is alleged in the Auditor’s Report that there were funds with no records of invoices and/or receipts in the financials of TSC, and no records of what the funds were intended for.

Some of the TSC funds as revealed were deposited into personal accounts of Board members. It is stated in the Auditor’s Report that funds of TSC were deposited in the personal account of ‘Inoke Afeaki, who was program co-ordinator for TSC. There was acknowledgment from Afeaki as well as TSC that this was an irregular way of doing things but there was an urgent reason for this action, despite its irregularity.

Designated funds for specific expenditures were also spent on other things. But the reaction from the Board members on the Auditor’s Report was that of denial that they did anything wrong, and that all funds were spent on TSC expenditures.

The members of the Board including Taliai as Chairperson are all close supporters of the late Prime Minister Pohiva and his party. Dr. ‘Ungatea Kata is Deputy Chairperson, Journalist Katalina Tohi, Businessman Jean Paul Chapman, and former diplomat Sateki ‘Ahio. When ordered to resign based on the Auditor’s Report, Dr. Kata took her views to media objecting to the Auditor’s Report, and on radio was openly in defiance of the Government’s call for the Board’s resignation.

It was also revealed that the current Board had been contracted for three years by the previous Government, their term running out in December 2021. In her radio interview, Kata said the Board would resign if the Government pays them up to the end of their term.

She also raised questions on what the Government has done with the levy that was collected to help with the proposed hosting of the South Pacific Games in Tonga. But since the hosting of the games was cancelled by the late Prime Minister and his Government, monies received from the levy (taxing of overseas money transfer, as well as on petrol sale) was spent on other things, not necessarily to do with sports. In a speech in Parliament, Minister of Finance, Tevita Lavemaau, said there was still $2 million pa’anga remaining from the funds collected in the levy. He did not reveal what the bulk of the funds had been used for.

The most controversial and possibly illegal arrangement done by the previous Government concerning TSC was the direct hiring of ‘Ikani Taliai from Australia to head up TSC. Not only was Taliai’s contractual engagement offered to him without going through the proper process of hiring for a Government job, but the salary level was excessive, much higher even than a Cabinet Minister’s salary.

Chairman of TSC, ‘Ikani Taliai

Taliai’s initial base salary package was $AUD60,000 (or $TOP 98,943) per annum, and was later renegotiated by Taliai himself, and raised to $AUD75,000 (or $TOP 123,678) plus other benefits. The benefits included electricity, water, internet, and phone monthly expenses of $TOP1316. There was also $TOP2,137 paid every six months for return travel to Australia. He was being paid up to $143,950 per annum. Additionally, Taliai was given a Government vehicle to use, and accommodations at Little India and other hotels.

TSC was a brainchild of the late Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva. ‘Ikani’s father, Rev Siupeli Taliai, was one of ‘Akilisi’s closest friends and a political advocate. The bringing over of Taliai from Australia, without any qualification or experience in sports management, is deemed to have been a gift from the late Prime Minister for Rev. Taliai’s friendship and loyalty over the years.

One of the main reasons for the establishment of TSC was to replace TASANOC, a non-Government organization that had managed sports in Tonga for decades. TASANOC managed the running of the 1989 Mini-South Pacific Games in Tonga, as well as Tonga’s involvement in international sporting events including the Olympics. TASA was granted the representation for Tonga as the National Olympic Committee on the International Olympic Committee.

But one of the main forces behind TASANOC is former Prime Minister Lord Sevele, whom ‘Akilisi Pohiva had a political fallout with him, and viewed him as an obstacle that stands in the way of accomplishing his vision and plans. Thus, it was understandable that the late Prime Minster wanted to get rid of TASANOC as well as Lord Sevele, so that Government (his Government) would be totally in control of the sports arena.

The action by ‘Akilisi Pohiva to cancel the hosting of the 2019 Pacific Games was a political move against Lord Sevele, as he was leading the local team that was to manage the Games under the auspices of the South Pacific Games Organizing Committee. Even though it was explained under the guise that Tonga may end up with debts unable to be repaid. Samoa stepped in and hosted the Games. As a nation they have been rewarded with all the benefits that Tonga could have inherited from hosting the Games.

Tonga was left empty and no longer trustworthy with regional or international agreements, and also without the necessary venues and equipment for the future of sports in Tonga.

Lord Sevele has been a major proponent in the fact that the sports domain would be one of the major contributing factors to economic development in Tonga. He advocated for the development of sports, and that major investments must be made by Government to develop all the various sports in Tonga. Obviously the late Prime Minister did not agree with him.

The state of sports development in Tonga has been severely damaged by the politicizing of sports. Two of the major sports in Tonga, Rugby Union and Rugby League are in constant unresolved tension within their governing boards over the past five years. Often appointments to boards are based not on their management ability of sports but on their political affiliation.

When Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa’s Government came into power, one of their main commitments was to try and bring restorative corrections to the mistakes and failures of the past. This action against TSC maybe one of those commitments.

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