Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Tonga’s Parliament recently opened on 7 May, with His Majesty Tupou VI exhorting House members via live-stream to work together for the betterment of all Tongans.
However, the first few days of Parliament was off to a rocky start, contentious debate over the national budget, 20% pay cut, and political party line dominated the mood of the day.
Due to the restrictions of COVID-19, His Majesty addressed Parliament from the Palace located in Nuku’alofa. This was the first time the opening of Parliament was ever conducted remotely.
Members of Parliament were in attendance – watching live on screen at the Legislative Assembly across town, near Nuku’alofa.
Budget and deficit
The first days of official business started off with the agenda tabled for Tonga’s National Budget of $589.6 million pa’anga for fiscal year 2020-2021.
Finance Minister, Hon. Tevita Lavemaau, explained this was the biggest deficit of $60 million on record.
The presentation of the National Budget caused a stir among members when Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’ionetoa gave a sermon to introduce the budget, followed by Minister of Finance’s normal presentation.
The national budget of $589.6 million includes $465.8 million cash on hand, and other assistance in material goods from donor partners, totaling $123.78 million.
Out of the $465.8 million cash, $85.8 million are from donor and partner support from various countries and organizations for development. The government contribution is $282 million, and $38.5 million is budget support.
Another $20.5 million comes from government reserve, while $20 million from bonds, and another $19 million low-interest loan from the IMF.This leaves an historical $60 million deficit in the budget, which the Minister of Finance attributes to COVID-19 impact on slowing down the global economy.
Tonga is faced with two choices: First, cut off essential services in development to meet Tonga’s current financial ability. Second option is, for the government to find solutions to the deficit by borrowing from the government reserve, issuing bonds, and soft loan from the IMF.
However, Prime Minister Tu’ionetoa’s earlier proposal of 20% pay cut for all members of Parliament, including the PM and Cabinet, continued to be the highlight of the ongoing debate.
Peoples’ Party vs PTOA Party
The PM spoke about how COVID-19 has not entered Tonga, and emphasized that his People’s Party, the party of the people, is leading the way forward for Tonga. “We are in the Fourth Revolution and the People’s Party has the vision.”
People’s Representative and a leading member of the opposition, Mateni Tapueluelu of TT4 district, interrupted and raised the issue to the Speaker, asking the relevancy of PM’s party ideology to the national budget.
Chairman of the PTOA Party, Semisi Sika, followed suit by raising the question of fairness, and allowing them equal time to promote their political party ideas.
The PM, who is also a theologian, in reply said, “The Bible, the people, and his party is the People’s Party.”
This turned into a tit-for-tat argument between the Prime Minister and opposition party member, Penisimani Fifita, about whether or not the PTOA was a registered party or not.
In reply, Fifita claims, “Io, oku iai emau me’a pehe” (Yes, we have that).
A noble representative from Vava’u, Lord Tu’i’afitu, took up the issue with the Lord Speaker, Noble Fakafanua, and pointed out to the Prime Minister that talks of Political Party was inappropriate and unconstitutional. The spirit of Parliament is to work together under one House (Unicameral), and talks of party politics are divisive and causes more harm than good in Parliament.
At the same time, Noble Tu’ilakepa also called for the Speaker to use his authority to direct the proceedings and have better control of the debates.
20% Pay Cut
The rest of the debate in Parliament was focused on the proposed 20% pay cut for all members, including Cabinet, to assist and show solidarity in difficult financial times due to the pandemic.
Semisi Sika made a proposal to allow the rest of the House to keep their pay, while he and the PM bear the financial burden, and give up their full pay.
Sika has been reported in the media to owe millions in unpaid taxes from his food business.
Parliament is expected to continue today with more heated debates surrounding the above issues, as the “kinikini” process is far from over.