29 Feb 2024

No word on talks between Tonga's King and PM

9:34 am on 29 February 2024
King Tupou VI receives Tonga's new Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, after presenting the Royal Warrant of Appointment for the PM at the Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa on Tuesday 28 December 2021. Sovaleni was elected as PM by the new parliament, following Tonga's November 18 general election.

King Tupou VI receives Tonga's new Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, after presenting the Royal Warrant of Appointment for the PM at the Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa on Tuesday 28 December 2021. Sovaleni was elected as PM by the new parliament, following Tonga's November 18 general election. Photo: Pesi Fonua / Matangi Tonga Online

Details of supposed talks between King Tupou VI and Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku to resolve a dispute in ministerial portfolios remain up in the air with no update from the Tongan government and Royal Palace about the latest developments.

It concerns a decision by Tupou VI on 2 February to withdraw his confidence and consent in the ministerial portfolios of Tonga's Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku and Foreign Minister Fekita 'Utoikamanu.

In an unprecedented move, the PM rebuked it after receiving advice from the Attorney-General and said it was an unconstitutional attempt to revoke their portfolios.

Deputy Prime Minister Samiuela Vaipulu told local media soon after that talks between the two parties would take place to resolve the matter.

But since then, there has been silence from both sides. In Parliament, no MP has confronted or asked the PM about the issue.

"There is nothing in constitutional law that stops the King from expressing his views about his confidence and his consent in relation to these portfolios but that does not mean that these appointments are revoked,"

"It is now a matter for the Prime Minister to decide with what to do with the communication, whether to accept it or whether take ask for an audience to discuss that communication, or take a stance that that he will not accept that communication."

Tonga's Acting Attorney-General 'Aminiasi Kefu Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The Tongan democracy

Tonga's political system is a partnership between the King and government.

Once an absolute monarchy, Tonga become a democracy in 2010 after the late King George Tupou V introduced major reforms.

His reforms removed the King and Privy Council from the executive government of Tonga.

The executive government was transferred to "…the Cabinet answerable to the Legislative Assembly".

Further amendments gave commoners a majority of seats in parliament (9 noble seats to 17 people's seats), dramatically reducing the power of Tonga's chiefs but preserving their participation.

At glance, Tonga's political structure appears to resemble the United Kingdom's Westminster system which holds the monarchy as Head of State and involves a House of Lords (a Parliament chamber filled with barons, lords and peers).

But there are fundamental differences, with the King playing a more active role.

"In the UK Westminster system, the King is not involved in effective decisions and political decisions…the King has no decision making except though royal consent to decisions passed through Parliament," former acting Attorney General 'Aminiasi Kefu said.

"In Tonga, there are certain aspects of the effective government that the King is involved in…the King still retains authority in relation to appointment of some executive posts such as the Attorney-General and the Police Commissioner.

"The King can veto legislation, the King determines whether the government can sign international treaties, the King can also appoint who represents him.

"In Tonga, it is a partnership between the His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister in running some aspects of government."

King Tupou VI

King Tupou VI Photo: RNZI/Indira Moala

Since 2010, there has been a rocky relationship between the monarchy/Privy Council and Cabinet.

Tensions became evident during the reign of anti-royalist Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva who led the country between 2014 and 2019.

Critics accused Pohiva of being autocratic and attempting to turn Tonga into one party state.

In 2017, upon the advice of the Parliament Speaker, King Tupou VI dissolved Parliament.

According to the House Speaker, Pohiva had acted unconstitutionally in much of his decision making including signing international agreements without the consent of the King and attempting to remove the king's power to appoint the attorney-general and police commissioner.

The reasons for the King's decision to withdraw his consent to the portfolios of the PM and Foreign Minister were not given and are open to speculation but it comes just months after the PM survived a vote of no-confidence.

Hu'akavameiliku faces intense criticism for his handling of the state-owned Real Tonga Airlines with opposition members accusing him of not being transparent about shares that had been sold from the enterprise.

"The King had the constitutional and legal right to dissolve the government because of how the constitutional reforms were made and there is a partnership between the King and Cabinet and the Prime Minister."

"They have to be on the same page to work, so obviously with this communication, they are not on the same page."