By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The motion to oust the Prime Minister, Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, submitted to Parliament on Wednesday 9 December, is beginning to take root as contents of the letter signed by 10 of the people’s representatives have been made public. Allegations of financial mismanagement and violation/breach of the law are the key issues addressed by the motion put forth by the opposition.
Semisi Sika, who is the representative for Tongatapu 2, and unconfirmed leader of the PTOA members in Parliament, shared the reasons for the Vote of No Confidence (VONC) in a radio interview with Luseane Luani of FM 87.5.
The shock motion for the VONC led by then Deputy Prime Minister Vuna Fa’otusia (who has resigned from the Cabinet) could not come at a better time as the Prime Minister has been the subject of widespread criticism primarily concerning his obsessive association with the controversial ‘Etuate Lavulavu, but specifically about his excessive spending to conduct a National Prayer and Fasting Tour, plus a number of other alleged mismanagement issues.
Most significant in all the seven points of contention outlined in the motion for a VONC is that they are in breach of the Constitution and/or a violation of the practice of good governance, according to the petitioners. And they have in detail outlined where there have been legal violations, but the points of contention are hereby summarized.
- No plan of action outlined for COVID-19 despite the rhetoric
Serious questions are raised concerning the fact that in the details of the Budget for 2020/2021 – 2022/2023 (3 years), there is no plan of action mentioned regarding COVID-19.
A meeting in December 2019 regarding COVID-19 was revealed by the Minister of Health, but there was no mention of any COVID-19 plans, in the 125-page annual action plans submitted to Parliament in June 2020. New works to be done included a dialysis program but no COVID-19 plan.
Despite promises as in the Budget Statement (p17) that Government puts priority number 1 in combatting COVID-19, no plan has been brought to Parliament that sets out actions to ensure safety for the people of Tonga. In the meantime, repatriation continues.
- $39 million loan did not go through proper processes
A loan of $39 million “to fill in the gaps in the 2020/2021 budget” did not go through the normal processes. By law they can borrow no more than $15m in a financial year. The regulations are clear on this:
(1) The Minister may borrow from any source whether within or without the Kingdom, sums of money not exceeding in the aggregate $15,000,000 in any one financial year, or such further sums as may be authorized by a resolution of the Legislative Assembly.
(2) Any borrowings made for the purpose of managing cash flows within a financial year and paid within that financial year shall not be included in the calculation of the limitation imposed by subsection (1).
(3) All loans made by government in any financial year, and the associated terms and conditions, shall be reported in the Budget statement presented to the Legislative Assembly for the next following financial year.
A budget deficit of $20.6 million was funded from the Emergency Fund because of the $380m expenditure with a revenue of only $359.4m. In this deficit budget there is already the inclusion of the proposed loan from IMF of $19m plus $20m from Government bonds.
According to the letter by the 10 MPs, the amount of the loan was “spread and hidden” in the budget statement, allegedly to avoid easy detection. As a result, the Government has broken the law of management of public funds.
- Roadworks selective and inappropriate infringing on Constitution
The road works program is inappropriate as it has been selective based on who is in the Cabinet. Priorities in works to be done with roads according to a Cabinet decision has been committed to 8 constituencies in the 2020/2021 budget, and for 50% of the works to be completed. These are the constituencies of the 8 members of the people’s representatives who are in the Cabinet.
A total allocation of $300m for the roadworks include $45m for the first year (2020/21). $120m for the second year (2021/22); and $135 for the third year (2022/23).
Details of the $300m are outlined as: a) $100m for rocks, b) $50m for tar and kerosene, c) $20m for clearance of trees and roadsides, d) $50m needs of workers e.g. overtime, oil, etc. e) $20m for works to seal the roads, f) $20m for drainage work, g) $40m other expenses.
The huge amount of money allocated raises questions on the selection process of companies to be providers and subcontractors on the projects.
The Prime Minister revealed in February 2020 at a public meeting at Tongatapu 4 that roadworks in his TT10 constituency has already exceeded $4m but not yet finished, and will continue.
- Inappropriate selective financial assistance from Government
The 2020/21 budget has an allocation of financial assistance prioritizing help to the company operating the boat from ‘Eua, the constituency of the Minister of Finance, despite the fact that there are other local boat companies in need of assistance.
The Budget Statement include the commitment from Government “to fund from the Budget of 2020/21 assistance to sea transportation to ‘Eua.” The Minister of Finance, Tevita Lavemaau is the people’s representative to ‘Eua, and Government looks the other way concerning issues of conflict of interest.
Other examples include the refusal to help Real Tonga Airlines effectively shutting them down, yet start a new Airline owned and funded by Government.
It was also raised that an excessive amount of $610,600 is set aside from the Prime Minister’s Office current budget for “Announcements or Media,” up to 30 June 2021. Questions raised as to which media is getting the bulk of the payments, and why such a high cost when Government has its own radio and television?
Construction and selective of sidewalks
This is opposed to the stated plan in which sidewalks were aimed to be done for the main towns of Nuku’alofa (for Tongatapu), Neiafu (for Vava’u), Pangai (for Ha’apai), and ‘Ohonua (for ‘Eua). However, other villages and townships are now selected for roadside works where Ministers come from.
This is obviously another blatant case of selective works carried out by Government only in constituencies of those in the Cabinet.
Failed services to agricultural exports.
This has been a terrible year for growers, especially watermelon growers who are exporting to New Zealand. The ban of shipments due to the discovery of fruit fly larvae in one of the shipments, incurred tremendous financial hardships on growers and exporters. And then when the ban was temporarily lifted this month for shipment, the ship left without the watermelon consignments because of failure of the Government services to provide the necessary transportation.
Watermelon shipment started in 1996, and this was the first time there was a botch-up, because they did not follow conditions of the agreement with New Zealand.
This was a failed service to an industry that sustains many families. Government failed to properly oversee the process in watermelon planting all the way to shipment.
- Excessive and inappropriate spending of taxpayer money in Fasting Tours
The petitioners for the VONC believe without a doubt that taking Cabinet with some of the ranking Civil Servants to the islands for the fasting program of the Prime Minister is an inappropriate expenditure as there is no need for such a program to be carried out that way. And the expenses would run into the hundreds of thousands. They believe the fasting program could have been run meaningfully in Tongatapu without the unnecessary expenses.
The petitioners are also shocked with the announcement from the Prime Minister that wives of Ministers are given travel allowance, and their travel and other expenses are covered.
In a time of a deficit budget, there is huge concern how tax-payer money is being used unwisely. And the burdens incurred on local people during these tours are inappropriate.
The other issue also in these tours and the associated programs conducted is that the Government itself has imposed COVID-19 restrictions in social gatherings yet ignore their own regulations during these fasting tours.
These points of contention presented in the motion of VONC will be debated and responded to by the Prime Minister who is the subject of the VONC. He is being given plenty of time before the January 12 reconvening of Parliament to prepare his response.
However at the end of a robust debate in Parliament, it is the vote among the members that would eventually determine the future of Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’ionetoa – whether he will remain the Prime Minister or be ousted, and replaced.
With 10 members of Parliament already supporting the VONC, there may need to be only two more members joining the opposition that would form a majority to oust the Prime Minister.