Democratic change in Tonga at a deliberate pace, but effective
Tonga's former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Malia Viviena 'Alisi Numia Taumoepeau offers reflections on law, democracy, Pacific traditions, and Tongan political culture.
“We have done some things right in Tonga,” says Malia Viviena ‘Alisi Numia Taumoepeau. She cites the 1875 constitution that declares the country’s Bill of Rights in the following words:
Since it appears to be the will of God that man should be free, as he has made all men of one blood, therefore shall the people of Tonga, and all who sojourn in this kingdom, be free for ever. And all men may use their lives and persons and times, to acquire and possess property, and to dispose of their labour, and the fruit of their hands, as they will.
“Way back in 1875 we were pretty cool,” she comments. “In the paradise of the Pacific we had it right. And today we still wave our flag and our constitution, as our most treasured possessions.” She agrees that Tonga has struggled through different issues, but says “we will survive.”
The latest changes made to the constitution expanded political rights to encompass all citizens. The law now allows 17 people’s representatives, and nine nobles’ representatives, and the King and the Privy Council are no longer a part of Executive Government.
However, these democratic reforms were not significant, or soon enough, for some concerned about the pace of change.
In 2006 riots broke out in the capital of Nuku‘alofa and protestors invaded her Attorney-General’s office at Parliament. Taumoepeau notched the tension down, however, by requesting that before the demands be put to her, the unexpected visitors pray together with her. They acceded and once the tension had dissipated, the discussions proceeded much more calmly.
Women’s representation in Tongan politics is still one area of concern for her. Despite workshops and training for potential women candidates, there are still no women MPs elected to the Tongan parliament, and she was appointed to her roles as Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
However, Taumoepeau is not distressed by this. “I am at peace because we are walking at the pace that we can handle. There are some who want to rush us, and some who want us to shut up and sit down. But no way. We are just going to walk at our pace, and we will reach the goals that we set for ourselves.”
Considering other innovations, she thinks that the creation of a new role of Ombudsman is significant because of the messages it sends about good governance and respect for the law and human rights. She also approves of the role incorporating the functions of the anti-corruption commissioner.
Pleased about the transition to greater democracy in Tonga, Taumoepeau acknowledges the role of New Zealand tertiary education in training future leaders in Tonga – those who will return to take up the challenge of further transforming the democratic institutions of her homeland.
The inaugural 2014 Queen Salote Tupou III Lecture was given at Massey University in Auckland in memory of the former Queen of Tonga. The speaker at this event, recorded in December 2014, was Tonga’s former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General Malia Viviena ‘Alisi Numia Taumoepeau.