Tonga at the crossroads (again)

In recent years the Kingdom of Tonga has featured prominently in news reports as a rather sad joke. In Tonga, where political authority is dependent on inherited rank rather than on talent and achievement, criticism of the government has been officially deemed to smack of disloyalty to the nation and to its traditions. In a reversal of noblesse oblige, the favoured few blatantly enjoy privileges on behalf of the many. This is an arrangement ready-made to support an administrative system that seems to be reconciled to charges of corruption, cronyism and inefficiency, yet which is putatively sanctioned by faka Tonga (indigenous custom). Hence the indignant opposition of the oligarchy to the pro-democracy movement and the fiasco over the banning of the Taimi’o Tonga newspaper.

The reasons for this state of affairs are deep-seated but readily discernable. The main one is that power resides with Taufa’ahau Tupou IV (king since 1965) and that he exercises it in association with a small class of hereditary nobles. None of these people is accountable to the 130,000 commoners who tenant their lands and who supply food for feasts—and who constitute the bulk of the population. Thus it is that wild notions (like making money by storing nuclear waste or by incinerating other countries’ used car tyres) and misguided policies (like selling passports and appointing a Court Jester) can be countenanced without embarrassment.

There was a time when things were very different, when Tonga could be looked to for setting worthy examples rather than for offering cautionary tales. Taufa’ahau Tupou I, commonly known as King George I, unified Tonga under his rule in 1852. Well before Italy (in 1870) and Germany (in 1871) were fashioned from collections of principalities into nation states, Tonga had shown the way. Then, in his law code of 1862, King George not only freed commoners from serfdom and curbed the power of the chiefs but made education compulsory for all children. That was eight years ahead of England, ten years ahead of the State of Victoria and 15 years before it became so in New Zealand. In 1875 George enacted a written constitution which entrenched ‘freedom of speech and newspaper for ever’ (sect.7). By such means and by international diplomacy the king (who lived till 1893) worked successfully to ensure that Tonga, alone among the Pacific Islands, maintained its political independence.

It also prospered. In 1909 one commentator calculated that with an annual disposable income of 36 pounds per head ‘the Tongans are the richest people in the world’. That figure, because Tongan housing and food costs were minimal, compared more than favourably with the Australian basic wage in 1907 0f 109 pounds p.a., most of which had to be spent on living expenses. Another high point was the reign of Queen Salote, from 1918 to 1965. George’s great-great-granddaughter and mother of the present king, she charmed the world with her graciousness and presided over a renaissance of Tongan culture and collective solidarity. A handsome edition of her poetry edited by her biographer, Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem of Melbourne, is due to be published shortly.

The problems that have beset Tonga since Salote’s time, and especially during the last 20 years, derive in large measure from the pervasive and impersonal tide of ‘modernisation’. That is not a phenomenon unique to Tonga. But difficulties have been exacerbated by the unwillingness of the ruling group to adapt, to curb its unearned advantages for the sake of the larger common good. Instead, it seeks to repress criticism and probably owes its survival, along with Tonga’s present social stability, less to its merits than to the fact that about 50 per cent of all Tongans have chosen to live overseas in order to better themselves.

Yet Tonga’s own history offers plentiful precedent for challenge and change rather than for a passive attachment to an ossified and inequitable status quo that shelters under the mantle of the faka Tonga. The Tongan experience has not been static. For example, traditions record the assassinations of several Tui Tonga, or sacred high chiefs, while even the revered King George spilled much blood on his way to power. More benignly, and more reassuringly, the reforms he instituted amounted to a thorough and enduring social revolution. Despite a resurgence of factionalism in the 1880s and again in the 1920s, these measures preserved the integrity of the Tongan nation. That precious legacy of responding flexibly to shifting circumstances now appears to be challenged by the critics of the pro-democracy advocates. The critics seem to assume that the people cannot be trusted to act responsibly or patriotically.

Besides the advantages of reflecting on history, there is another lesson to be drawn from the Tongan case. Despite the often parroted objection that it is a foreign or ‘colonial’ invention and is inappropriate for a given culture or regime, democracy remains an invaluable and generally applicable principle of government. Democracy enjoins the acceptance of public accountability on those in power. It does not sit easily with conveniently rationalised exemptions from normal standards of good practice. The critics of democracy tend, not surprisingly, to be found among those with sectional interests to preserve, and who also benefit from its absence.

What, then, is the prognosis? My guess is this: since Tongans are a relatively well-educated people with a strong sense of national identity, mounting internal demands and external pressures will lead to the introduction of a more inclusive system of government within five years, and respect for the monarchy will survive any reduction of the oligarchy’s entitlements. Or is that being unduly optimistic? After all, it is difficult to understand how anyone with a magnanimous appreciation of the faka Tonga could support legislation that might increase public frustration. Yet that is what the proposed amendment to the constitution abolishing judicial review is likely to do.

Meanwhile, what is one to say to those who resent any criticism from Australia and New Zealand on such matters as an unwarranted intrusion? The answer is clear, as is the evidence. Given Tonga’s close links of friendship and kinship with those two countries and the generosity of their assistance to Tonga, and the importance to them internationally of not being deemed to connive at institutionalised injustice, any criticism is meant to be helpful not hostile. It should be considered carefully, for the
consequences of rejecting it may not be any kind of joke.

A troublesome factor remains in all this, one that lies beyond the usual calculations of political commentators. It is the elusive—and largely unspoken—notion of kuonga (literally, ‘era’). This is the expectation, said to derive from the ancient Tui Tonga line of sacred rulers, that each regnal period should be marked from the beginning by a distinctive quality or character, and that this should not thereafter be substantially modified or traded in for something else. For George I it was ‘reform’. For Salote it was ‘reunion’, especially in church allegiances. For Tupou IV, educated at Newington College and at Sydney University, it was ‘economic modernisation’, but within the social conditions of the time. That these no longer prevail is, from the perspective of the ruling elite, irrelevant. Several decades on, the monarchical kuonga of the 1960s has become too narrow. It has created a dangerous blind spot for the government. Accordingly, if significant change is to come without social disturbance, it will be more likely at the beginning of the next reign than in the remaining years of the present one.

Which raises the question: is Crown Prince Tupouto’a, the heir presumptive, likely to favour, say, ‘inclusiveness’ as the kuonga of his reign, and thus sanction the radical political reformation that the times—and many of the Tongans—seem to demand? It is still too early to know. The past has shown that such a move could enhance rather than impair the faka Tonga. Official utterances on the ailing king’s 85th birthday on 4 July 2003 suggest, however, that Tonga’s royalty has little interest in history—or in learning from it. ?

Hugh Laracy, a specialist in Pacific Islands history, is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland.



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