By Josephine Latu: Pacific Media Centre
Tonga’s Constitutional and Electoral Commission (CEC) has released its first progress report to the public since being set up in January.
In its June 5 report, CEC chose not make any recommendations until it has received more proposals from the public specifically addressing governance structures.
This includes the roles of the executive and legislature branches, as well as the electorate.
The deadline for submissions has now been extended until July 6.
The CEC had conducted a series of public forums on Tonga’s main island districts (Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, ‘Eua, and the Niuas later this month), to gather public opinion and feedback about the political reforms planned for 2010.
Twenty-seven written submissions, each supported by at least 200 members of the community, were also received by the CEC.
Land key concern
“It was apparent that many ordinary Tongans have little interest in politics or the structure of the government,” said the report, released both in English and Tongan.
“This may arise partly from a lack of ability to affect change over many generations.”
On the other hand, the report affirmed that land was a central issue of concern in every district forum, especially the fear of alienation as a consequence of reform.
“In many cases it appeared to be a matter of more significance and concern than electoral and representational change or other changes to the Constitution,” read the report.
Another common complaint was that “electors in the outer districts are ignored by their representatives once the election is over”.
The outer districts were more likely to be unhappy about lack of effective government and administration.
According to the CEC, many members from these communities felt that government, “however formed” would “simply continue to neglect their interests and devote most of its time, energy and resources to the central districts".
These concerns needed to be taken into account for reform to have any practical significance for the general population.
The report called for an extensive public awareness programme that will continue after the CEC’s final report and recommendations, due on November 5.
This is to educate the general public on the implications of political change, which may possibly herald drastic changes such as the election of the prime minister by the House (rather than appointment by the King), the dissolution of the King’s Privy Council, and a single “transferrable” vote system.
“The change from a paternalistic system of appointed ministers under a benevolent monarch to an elected government answerable to the people who elected them is profound,” said the report.
Although they admitted the 10-month time frame given to gather public input, make recommendations and draft legislation was “surprisingly short”, the CEC said it would do its utmost to fulfil public expectations that reforms will happen in the coming year.
However, recommendations “will and must be made in a Tongan context”, the report said.
The final CEC report will then be submitted to Parliament for debate.
The CEC membership: Justice Gordon Ward (chair), Tu’ivanuavou Vaea, Dr Sitiveni Halapua, Dr ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki, Sione Fonua and Hon. ‘Eseta Fusitu’a, with alternate members: Hon. Tu’i’afitu, Masao Paasi, and ‘Aisea Taumoepeau.
Josephine Latu is contributing editor of the PMC's Pacific Media Watch. Pictured: King George Tupou V opening Parliament.