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Sale of Tongan royal home ‘Atalanga stalled – but legal battle far from over

'Atalanga

Auckland's Tongan royal family homestead 'Atalanga ... sale plan target of massive protests. Photo: TNews

Queen Salote willed ‘Atalanga to her heirs and successors. Many Tongans question the legality of any sale, believing the Auckland property should be held in perpetuity for future Tongan royals and that no king has any individual right to it.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Kim Austin

The controversial sale of ‘Atalanga, the Tongan royal residence in Auckland, has been halted. But legal experts warn that the battle is far from over as they prepare for the lawsuit to be fought back in Tonga.

The property, valued at around NZ$10 million, was originally purchased in the 1950s by Queen Salote, grandmother to the current king, George Tupou V.

She bought it both as a base for visiting Tongan royalty and dignitaries, as well as for student accommodation.

At the time there was a small but growing number of Tongan students studying in Auckland, and the idea was that the massive grounds could be used to house them. Queen Salote was especially concerned that female students should have a safe place to stay.

‘Atalanga is a massive property, with more than 1.6 hectares of land in one of Auckland’s prime real estate suburbs.

It is, however, in disrepair, and as the current king rarely visits Auckland, preferring more stately digs in London, he decided in 2008 to put the property up for sale.

The problem is that Queen Salote had willed the property to her heirs and successors. This led many Tongans to question the legality of the sale, believing it should be held in perpetuity for future Tongan royals and that the king has no individual right to it.

Documents researched

Queen Salote

Queen Salote ... she willed the property to her heirs and successors. Phtoto: Alexander Turnbull Library

Auckland-based lawyer Joel Fotu is part of a group of legal experts who have been fighting the sale for more than two years.

“I had a look at the issue and did a bit of research,” says Fotu.

In the course of this research he came across a set of documents that belonged to the British council in Tonga, now being held in the special collections of the University of Auckland library.

“There is a file on ‘Atalanga and the history is there. It shows where the money came from to buy the place,” says Fotu.

Fotu then wrote to the king, informing him of his findings and asking that he hold off on the sale until the matter could be settled, but discovered that “it was already being listed by Bayleys”.

Fotu, along with many others, believes the issue boils down to a straightforward legal matter, based on a clause in the Tongan Constitution that directly relates to royal property.

“Clause 48 of the Tongan Constitution does make it clear that anything that comes to the king as an inheritance he’s not supposed to sell.

“‘Atalanga is inheritance and he should hold on to it for the people and his heirs and successors,” says Fotu.

Massive protests
When the sale was originally announced in 2008 there were massive protests. Activist Alani Taione made international news when he drove a car into the locked gates of ‘Atalanga and then proceeded to set it alight.

He has calmed down considerably since then, and has even accepted that the king merely acted on bad advice, but still believes that the sale is not the right move for the people of Tonga.

“The government was trying to sell it for its own political use instead of using it for the people.

“We still, as the people of Tonga, think that this place should be used for the benefit of everyone,” say Taione

Although Taione and other opponents of the sale are pleased that it has been halted, lawyers warn that the battle is only really just beginning.

“There is another layer in Tonga, [Sione Fonua] who is bringing a case against the king to prove that some of the houses inherited by him are not his to sell but belong to the royal line of successors.

“The papers were lodged before Christmas last year but there still hasn’t been any statement of defence from the other side.

“Maybe the king thinks he’s untouchable in Tonga,” say Fotu.

Legal quagmire
Other lawyers fear the case could become bogged down in a legal quagmire stretching right across the Pacific.

Malia Talakai is a lawyer who works as an academic advisor at Unitec’s Pacific Centre. She fears the issue will come down to how the constitution is interpreted back in Tonga.

“He [the king] holds the crown but with even more power there. Whether that power can be limited is a matter to be decided in court and that’s the interesting thing about it.

“The constitution still gives him that overarching power … but everyone, including the king, is subject to the law – which is the constitution. It’s very complicated,” she says.

To complicate matters further, many of those who oppose the sale still hold considerable feelings of loyalty to the monarchy.

Lawyer Mele Tuilotolava says she has strong views on both sides of the issue.

“The late queen was entitled to have personal property and Atalanga had been treated by her heirs as such … on the other hand the challenge is that the conduct of all concerned demonstrates that the property belongs to the Tongan people.

“I think the answer might be found in the Tongan constitution. The whole of Tonga belongs to the king and heirs,” she says.

Back to courtroom
And back to the courtroom it goes.

As Fotu awaits news from Tonga, he believes that as much as the matter is being deliberately dragged out, the international accountability of the Tongan legal system means that justice will ultimately triumph.

“They are mindful that they have a right of appeal to a court of appeal which is made up of New Zealand and Australian high court judges. It will go to that level if it needs to,” he says.

One of the problems with the issue being played out in courtrooms and lawyers’ offices is that many less well informed Tongans are not getting adequate information about the issue – both in New Zealand and in Tonga.

Labourer Mali’na Toki says that despite a deep personal connection to ‘Atalanga, he was unaware of the issues surrounding its sale.

“The whole reason I’m here is because of that place. My grandmother was brought here to work in the kitchen at ‘Atalanga.

“I didn’t hear anything about it being for sale. I didn’t see anything on the news about it,” he says.

Not filtering down
Malia Talakai also fears that the information is not filtering down to the people of Tonga.

“I’ve been back and forth a few times now and I’m not quite sure that it’s really affected the people there.

“The media there is owned by the king and the freedoms they have wouldn’t be the same in Tonga … especially because you’re talking about the king.

“My relatives live just out of Nuku’alofa and I don’t know if they are even aware of it,” she says.

Kim Austin is  a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies (Journalism) student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.