By Josephine Latu
Limiting the King of Tonga’s powers and almost doubling the number of people’s seats in Parliament from nine to 17 are among key recommendations in the Constitutional and Electoral Commission’s final report.
The document, tabled in Parliament on Friday, includes a total of 82 recommendations about the roles of the executive and legislative branches of government.
They include specific constitutional changes to the King’s powers, the composition of Parliament and the people’s voting system.
The commission recognised the effects of the recommended changes on overall Tongan culture and society.
“The changes affect only a small part of an intricately interwoven society. None of them can occur in total isolation. All will send ripples, sometimes waves, into surrounding aspects of life in Tonga,” says the 131-page report.
It was submitted along with three other comprehensive volumes of information, drawn from 97 proposals received from various community groups and members of the public, as well as submissions made in open forums held around the islands since January.
The report emphasised that “the population as a whole regards the monarchy as a stabilising influence” and “an integral part of the tradition and culture”.
It recommended the nation remain a constitutional monarchy, adding that current King George Tupou V provided a “catalyst” for the reforms through his own desire to transfer power to the people through an elected government.
However, the report also referred to the “growing gulf” between the government and the governed as a possible cause for the traumatic riot of November 2006, which claimed the lives of eight people.
The commission reported that some Tongans continued to doubt the sincerity of the government’s plans for reform.
“We have repeatedly been told of suspicion that the stated intention of the government to hasten meaningful change is simply untrue,” it said.
Despite the King’s proposal that constitutional reforms be made in the form of flexible conventions rather than amendments, the commissioners said amendments were vital in order for the reforms to be consistent and binding.
“We would prefer to [use conventions] but, if they had already acquired the status of conventions, we would not need to make the changes,” they stated.
The King would:
– Remain Head of State but no longer participate in the executive government. The Executive government shall be the Cabinet, which answers to the Legislative Assembly (Parliament).
– No longer choose his own Prime Minister and Ministers, but appoint the PM on the advice of the Legislative Assembly, and appoint the Ministers on the advice of the PM.
– Only appoint judges to the Supreme and Appeal Courts on the advice of the Chief Justice (rather than the Privy Council).
– Retain the power to withhold assent to laws and dissolve Parliament, if necessary, as a safeguard against unlawful acts by the government.
The Privy Council:
– Exist solely as an advisory body, with all executive, legislative and judiciary powers removed.
– While members are to be appointed at the King’s pleasure, they should not include members of the Legislative Assembly (including the PM and Cabinet). The commission recommended the governors of Ha’apai and Vava’u, two nobles, a church leader, and the Secretary of the Traditions Committee be ex officio members.
– The number of People’s Representatives in Parliament would increase from nine to 17 (nine for Tongatapu District, three each for Vava’u and Ha’apai, one each for Niua and ‘Eua), while the number of Nobles Representatives remain at nine (as elected by the 33 titleholders).
– The King would appoint a PM at the recommendation of the House of Representatives, and for this Prime Minister to advise the King on the appointment of Cabinet ministers, now limited to 10.
– Cabinet ministers would be appointed from the MP’s but will remain as representatives at the same time.
– A single transferable vote system i.e. one person gets one vote, but if his/her choice for representative reaches a certain quota of votes to get elected into Parliament, then the voter’s second choice receives the vote and so on.
– Needs to have an up-to-date electoral roll.
“We cannot and do not claim that all our recommendations are right but we hope that any changes they spawn will help give a tangible and appropriate form to the hopes for sensible change,” the commission added.
Commission members were also worried that Parliament would take too long debating their report before making a decision.
They recommended that if the necessary work for reform could not be completed by the November 2010 deadline, then elections should be held using the recommended voting system and numbers of representatives, with any other changes to be dealt with later.
The report was submitted to the King on Friday by four of the five members of the Commission – Lord Vaea, Dr Sitiveni Halapua, Dr ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki and Sione Fonua.
The chairman, Justice Gordon Ward, was not in the country. The commission began work on January 5.
Josephine Latu is contributing editor of the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch and a masters student in communication studies at AUT University.