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Democracy struggling against bureaucracy

Tuesday 1 December 2015 | Published in Regional

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NUKU‘ALOFA – A year has passed since the elections in Tonga brought a new-look government into power and there is concern that expectations haven’t been met yet.

In the 2014 election, voters chose a government headed by long time pro-democracy campaigner ‘Akilisi Pohiva, making him the first commoner to be elected to the position.

Pohiva has been a democracy campaigner for more than 30 years and the longest serving member of parliament.

His latest election victory was heralded as a win for democracy across the kingdom.

However the first phase of the government’s term has been beset with controversies over women’s rights conventions, the education sector, legal challenges and financial difficulties.

Political scientist and Pasifika Director at Massey University Malakai Koloamatangi says the government has also shown a lack of engagement with the people over its first few months which needs to be re-established.

Dr Koloamatangi told Radio New Zealand’s Dateline Pacific the apparent inexperience in government has not helped.

“Inefficiency, like the budget being set around a clear development programme for the economy. Routine government matters are not being organised properly or even promoted by the government. I think the inexperience shows throughout its function,” he said.

The outgoing government’s former adviser, Kalafi Moala, concedes the new government’s inexperience has caused issues but he says while there is every intention to bring positive change, ‘Akilisi Pohiva is bound by red tape.

“It is not easy to bring reform, particularly when you see the bureaucracy that has been many, many years, that have become very concrete in the way things are done.

“To have changes, there will always be the tug-a-war between the status quo which people are used to and the new things that are being introduced.”

Moala said the government has been able to identify problems in the education sector, but is struggling to solve them. However, he says there have been some successes too.

“We have 15 public enterprises and they want to reduce that to five. They have effectively done that.

“They have been able to get an anti-corruption commission set up. On alleviation of poverty, they have been able to lift tariffs and duties on items like fruits and vegetables that have been imported,” Moala said.

But experienced journalist and Chair of the Tonga Media Council, Pesi Fonua, said changes have been slow if any.

He says government ministers refused to act before they produced the budget in June.

“They didn’t have any proper plan, didn’t have anything clear in their mind. We had to wait from December until July. That’s a hell of a long time to wait.

“For a government who has been campaigning to get in there, doesn’t matter which government, once you are in there you should be running. We have been crawling from December to July and now we are actually lying half dead.”

But Moala said the public expectation was too high. He likened it to the same feelings local rugby fans had before their match against the champion New Zealand side this year.

“Before the World Cup, I mean there was talk that it’s possible for Tonga to beat the All Blacks. That is very unrealistic, but everybody was excited. Then of course when the game came they started realising there was too much hope.”

Dr Koloamatangi agrees expectations were sky-high. Although he said the fault for this may lie with the government’s election campaigning and the pro-democracy movement over the past decade.

“They certainly encouraged people to think that democracy and the benefits coming from democracy would happen overnight. That was dangerous. It raises expectations. When people’s expectations are not met, there are problems.

“We know that democracy is an elusive concept, let alone trying to institutionalise it. The benefits usually come later.”

Dr Koloamatangi says 74-year-old Pohiva is possibly past his prime.

“If you look at the history of the democracy movement in Tonga, the mid-1990s, that would have been the ideal time to have him in government. He was strong. He was a good debater. He had energy. He had ideas. But sadly I think maybe it is 20 years too late for him.”

Moala says Pohiva has been doing his best but can only do so much within the current bureaucracy.

Moala has now stepped down as government adviser because of that same system, saying he could not operate freely and advise Pohiva freely within it.

He will return to work as publisher in the private sector. The government has three more years to achieve its aims.

- Dateline Pacific