Chapter 3 Tonga
The Tongan archipelago is located in the South Pacific. It has a land
area of 748 square kilometres, which comprises 176 islands, of which 36 are
inhabited. Its administrative divisions are spread across three island
groups—Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Vav’u. The capital, Nuku’alofa, is located on the
island of Tongatapu. The country has a predominately Polynesian Christian
population and a small European community. Census figures for 2011 estimated
Tonga’s population to be 103 036.
Tonga has a small open economy which is vulnerable to external
developments. The International Monetary Fund estimated that in 2011 Tonga’s Gross
Domestic Product would reach US$378 million. This represents a modest economic
growth of 1.4 per cent from the previous financial year.
Tonga imports a high proportion of its goods. During 2010-2011 Tonga
imported AUD$8 518 000 worth of goods from Australia, while Australia
imported AUD$416 000 worth of goods from Tonga (primarily vegetables,
fruit and nuts). The country has a narrow export base in agriculture and 70 per
cent of the population derive part of their livelihood from farming.
The Tongan economy is primarily supported by foreign monies. According
to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Tongan economy
relies heavily on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans working overseas. The
foreign development assistance is comprised of loans, grants and direct aid.
Remittances come primarily from Tongans working in the United States, New
Zealand and Australia. Another source of economic growth for Tonga is
construction and infrastructure projects funded by donor grants and soft loans.
The Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) indentifies
Tonga’s key development challenges as increasing levels of debt, declining
quality of education, rising levels of non-communicable disease such as
diabetes and heart disease, and limited employment opportunities.
In addition to ongoing issues and the global financial crisis, Tonga has also
had to respond to the challenges of the 2009 tsunami and the sinking of the MV
Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. In 2006 His Majesty King George
Tupou V was crowned. Regrettably, since the delegation’s visit, His Majesty
passed away in March 2012. An official period of mourning was declared
from 19 March to 19 June 2012. King George Tupou V has been succeeded by his
brother, King Tupou VI. While King George Tupou V’s reign was relatively short,
his significant legacy was to cede key governing powers from the monarchy and
allow for the country’s first democratic election in November 2010. A first
past the post voting system was introduced for the election.
In 2009-2010 many governing powers were devolved from the Monarchy to
the Cabinet. The effect was that the Tongan Government then had responsibility
for the day to day running of the country.
Tonga’s unicameral legislature is called the Fale Alea. The governing
structure comprises the Executive (Cabinet), Legislature and Judiciary. The
Legislative Assembly has 17 People’s Representatives and nine Noble
Representatives. The People’s Representatives are elected by Tongans aged 21 or
over, and the Noble Representatives are elected by the 33 Tongans that hold noble
titles. The term is for three years, but the Legislative Assembly can be
dissolved before the end of the term. The Government is also able to bring in
outside people to serve in Cabinet.
The Tongan Parliament generally sits from June to December, four days a
Australia and Tonga
There is an Australia-Tonga Partnership for Development, in which both
countries agree to work together to meet common challenges and to raise the
standard of living and quality of life for the people of Tonga. The four
priority areas for development in Tonga are: improving the efficiency and
effectiveness of the Tongan public sector; improving health outcomes; improving
the skill level of the Tongan workforce; and improving the country’s
infrastructure. The partnership document also indicated that a focus would be
on continuing Tonga’s progress on many of the Millennium Development Goals.
Australia and Tonga also cooperate on defence issues in the region.
Tonga has sent a number of workers to Australia under the Pacific Seasonal
Worker Pilot Scheme.
Australia is Tonga's largest bilateral donor. In 2011-2012, it is
estimated that Tonga will receive AUD$32.1 million in Overseas Development
Assistance, which will include AUD$19 million from the AusAID country program.
Tonga has received a number of high level visitors from Australia in
recent years, including the Governor-General, Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce
AC CVO, and the President of the Senate, Senator John Hogg. There are also many
people to people connections, with a number of Tongans working in Australia and
many Australian’s claiming Tongan ancestry.
While Australia and Tonga are linked in a number of ways, as members of
the Australian parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the
delegation’s main focus was on gaining an appreciation of Tonga’s experience as
a new democracy in the Asia Pacific region.
In the Australia-Tonga Partnership for Development, both countries
acknowledged ‘the important political reform process being undertaken by the
Government of Tonga and Australian Government support for the process’.
Australia has provided technical and funding support to Tonga in relation to
constitutional and electoral reform, and law and justice initiatives.
Figure 3.1 Delegation with the Speaker and members of the
Tongan Legislative Assembly
Constitutional and electoral reform
In 2010 significant changes were made to the Constitution of Tonga
1875. The process of constitutional and electoral reform in Tonga
includes the following key changes:
n the transfer of
Executive power from the King to the Government of the day;
n a parliament with the
majority of its members elected by universal suffrage;
n a prime minister
elected by a majority of the elected members of parliament;
n a cabinet nominated
by the prime minister and comprised largely of elected members of parliament;
n a strong and
independent judiciary free of political influence.
Significantly, the number of directly elected People’s Representatives
in the Legislative Assembly was increased from nine to 17. The total number of
Legislative Assembly members was also reduced to 26 from the previous 32. The
majority of the Tongan Parliament are now directly elected.
The number of parliamentary standing committees has increased, with
Ministers serving on these committees. Previously there were only two
committees (finance and law) now there are five standing committees.
A number of factors contributed to Tonga’s move to democracy. Pro-democracy
supporters have been campaigning for reform for over 30 years. Following
pro-democracy demonstrations and the public sector strike in 2005, the Tongan
Government commissioned the National Committee on Political Reform (NCPR) to
engage with Tongans at home and abroad on the political changes needed in
Tonga. AusAID provided AUD$250 000 to assist the NCPR to consult with the
In November 2006 riots occurred in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, as a
reaction to what was perceived by some as the slow pace of democratic change.
The riots resulted in a number of deaths and destroyed much of the central
business district in Nuku’alofa, leading to the Government declaring a state of
emergency. Australia and New Zealand, at the request of the Tongan Government,
undertook a joint deployment of 150 defence and political personnel, to respond
to the civil unrest and contribute to the restoration of law and order, and
business recovery and reconstruction.
Reform then progressed steadily over the next few years. In 2007 a
committee comprising the Cabinet, Nobles and People’s Representatives put
forward a report to the Legislative assembly. The Constitutional and
Electoral Commission Act 2008 established the Constitutional and Electoral
Reform Commission (CEC). The CEC was tasked with reporting to the Privy Council
and the Legislative Assembly on constitutional and electoral reform. It
commenced work in January 2009 and presented its final report in November 2009.
The CEC members were appointed on the recommendation of Cabinet, the Nobles,
the People’s Representatives and the Judicial Services Commission.
The CEC made 82 recommendations, around two-thirds of which were
accepted by the Legislative Assembly. Accepted recommendations relevant to
elections included that:
n An independent
Electoral Commission be established (recommendation 65);
n The Electoral
Commission regulate and control all matters of election and candidate
expenditure within or outside the election period and require the presentation
of accounts within two weeks of the declaration of the result of the election
from all candidates whether successful or not (recommendation 68);
n Immediate steps be
taken on an up-to-date and accurate register of electors
(recommendation 71); and
n Tongans living
overseas shall continue to be entitled to register and can vote if they are
present in Tonga on polling day (recommendation 79).
The Electoral Amendment Act 2010 and the Electoral Regulations 2010
subsequently gave effect to the changes supported by the Tongan Parliament.
King George Tupou V played a significant role in the democratic reforms
in Tonga. When taking the throne in 2006, he expressed his support for
political reform in Tonga. In 2008, it was noted in a Tongan Government media
King George had felt for a long time that
Tonga's political system was not evolving quickly enough and that it should
keep pace with the diversifying of the economy. He gave his support to an electoral
and parliamentary reform process based on extensive public consultations and a
search for consensus among legislators.
One of the former King’s significant legacies will be as an ‘architect
of the evolving democracy in Tonga’. The delegation is optimistic
that his successor, King Tupou VI, will demonstrate a similar belief in, and
commitment to, democracy in Tonga.
Tonga’s Electoral Commission
An independent Electoral Commission was established in May 2010 under
the Electoral Commission Act 2010. It is the first electoral commission
to be established in Tonga. It is responsible for overseeing all electoral
related matters in the country and ensuring that electoral activities are
implemented in a free and fair environment. Prior to 2010 electoral matters had
been managed by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Electoral Commission Board is comprised of a Chairman appointed by
the King for a five-year term, the Supervisor of Elections, and the Auditor-General.
The Chairman, Mr Barrie Sweetman, was appointed by King George Tupou V in July
Section 10 of the Electoral Commission Act provides that the Tongan
Electoral Commission will:
(a) undertake the long
term planning for the proper conduct of elections and the establishment and
maintenance of proper records and rolls;
(b) consider the need for
regulations and other rules for the proper and efficient conduct of elections
and related activities;
(c) as authorised by
law, make and amend regulations and keep them under review;
(d) make recommendations
for changes to the law concerning elections;
(e) under the powers
granted to it in the Electoral Act, determine appeals, challenges and any other
prosecution for election offences;
(g) devise, undertake and
review programmes of education for voters, candidates and others involved in
(h) compile and make
reports on elections and related matters, and recommend changes to the law and
procedures to improve the electoral system;
for general information such data and reports on elections as the Commission
(j) within 3
months after any general election, report to the Cabinet on any changes that it
recommends should be implemented before the next general election;
(k) for the purpose of
promoting fairness and equal opportunities for all candidates and to prevent
abuses, to regulate the use of radio, television, newspaper, internet and other
political notices, reports, appeals and advertising during the election period;
and monitor electoral expenditure by candidates in accordance with section 24
of the Electoral Act; and
(m) perform any of the functions that
are specified for it in the Electoral Act or any other Act.
During its visit, the delegation met with the Chairman, Mr Barrie
Sweetman, and Mr Pita Vuki, who serves as the Supervisor of Elections and
Electoral Commissioner. Mr Vuki oversees the day to day operations of the
office, with a core staff comprising an Assistant Supervisor of Electors, a
Senior Returning Officer, a computer operator, a driver and a security officer.
Many of these staff members formerly worked for the elections section of the Prime
As the Auditor-General, Mr Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, ran as a candidate in the
2010 General Election, it was agreed that it was not appropriate for him to
participate in electoral commission business.
The Electoral Commission describes its long term objectives as:
n to maintain a free
and fair electoral process;
n to maintain an
updated and accurate electoral roll;
n to have an informed
n to encourage and
promote public participation in national elections; and
n to provide relevant
assistance and support on electoral matters.
In 2009 an Electoral Boundaries Commission was appointed to develop
options for Tonga’s electoral boundaries. It provided the Legislative Assembly
with three options for consideration, with the second as the preferred option.
The Prime Minister indicated that Cabinet intended to present another
option incorporating the best features of the three options presented by the Electoral
Boundaries Commission. However, the Legislative Assembly voted in favour of the
New electoral boundaries applied for the 2010 General Election. There
are 17 electoral districts in Tonga: Tongatapu 1 to 10; Eua 11; Ha’apai, 12 and
13; Vavu’u 14 to 16, and Ongo Niua 17.
During the visit, delegates met with the Chief Government Statistician,
Mr ‘Ata’ata Finau. The 2010 election boundaries were based on 2006 census
data. A census was scheduled for November 2011, and the Electoral Boundaries
Commission has recommended a census be undertaken every five years.
The distribution of the Tongan population across a number of islands,
poses geographical challenges when determining electoral boundaries. The
majority of the population reside in the main island of Tongatapu. The Chief
Statistician noted that only four of the constituencies have an even
distribution of electors.
The 2010 election boundaries represented a measured transition into the
new arrangements. It is proposed that the Electoral Boundaries Commission will
review the boundaries prior to the 2014 election. This will include community
consultation on any proposed changes.
2010 General Election
His Majesty King George Tupou V issued the Writs of Election on 30 September
2010. The General Election on 25 November 2010 was the culmination of
commitments to political reform in Tonga. The election was covered by local and
During 2010 the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) assisted Tonga in
the lead up to, and the conduct of, the Legislative Assembly elections on 25
November 2010. This assistance was provided at the request of the Tongan
Government, which illustrates the experience and reputation that Australia is
building in the region for its governance and electoral assistance.
The election was historic because it was the first time the people of
Tonga were able to elect more representatives to the Legislative Assembly than are
appointed by the King. Previously there were only nine elected members in a 32
As many of the significant electoral changes came into effect in May
2010, the Electoral Commission only had a few months for election preparations.
A by-election was held in September 2011 for the Tongatapu 9
constituency, following the death Mr Kaveinga Fa'anunu. Mr Falisi
Tupou MP was the successful candidate.
Voter registration is mandatory in Tonga, but voting is voluntary. There
were 42 409 registered electors for the 2010 General Election, with over 90 per
cent voter turnout.
A new system of voter registration was designed for the election. The
Electoral Commission undertook voter education programs using television, radio
and print media to ensure that the Tongan people understood the arrangements.
In May 2010 teams of people visited each constituency to undertake voter
registration. The process involved an elector completing a registration form
and being photographed to produce the national identification card.
The National Identity Card was introduced in Tonga in 2010. Electoral
Regulations require registered voters to produce these identity cards—or
another form of identification satisfactory to the Returning Officer—at polling
stations. This photographic identity card displays the cardholder’s personal
identity number, name, date of birth, gender, nationality, signature,
residential address and, if applicable, drivers licence number. It is intended
that in addition to being used for election purposes, the cards will be issued
to Tongan residents 14 years and older to be used as an identification alternative
to passports and drivers licences.
Prior to, and following the election, Tongan residents registered for
this card at the Tongan Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission will
continue to work closely with the office responsible for the National Identity
Cards to help ensure data sharing and the maintenance of the electoral roll.
In their review of the election, Australian and New Zealand observers
commented that ‘the voter identifications cards provided integrity and
simplicity to the process’.
The provisional rolls were distributed for further review in July 2010
and were open to objections until 10 August. There were objections made in
relation to 11 registered voters on residency grounds. These objections were disallowed
following investigations by the Electoral Commission. Voter registration
continued until the end of August and the final roll was published on 9
Candidates and campaigning
There were 144 candidates, including 11 women, who contested the 17
seats for People’s Representatives in the Legislative Assembly of Tonga.
The nomination of candidates took place on 21 and 22 November 2010. The
Electoral Commission prepared and distributed a Candidates Information Handbook
and undertook information sessions for potential candidates, which outlined the
changes to the nomination process.
New campaigning restrictions for this election included requiring
appropriate authorisation of printed electoral advertisements and no
campaigning in the 24 hours prior to the start of the poll. There was also a
candidate election spending limit of TOP$10 000 (approximately AUD$6 000).
The polling on Saturday, 25 November 2010 comprised two parts: the
election of the Nobles Representatives (nine positions) and the election of the
People’s Representatives (17 constituencies). A sample ballot paper is attached
at Appendix C.
More than 500 people were recruited to serve as polling staff. Many of
the staff were civil servants and were assisted by military personnel to check
identity cards at the polling stations.
The results were announced that evening. One of the candidates called
for a recount for the constituency of Tongatapu 6. It took place on
29 November, resulting in minor changes to the figures, but no change to
the final result.
Review of 2010 General Election
The Tongan Electoral Commission produced a report on the conduct of the 2010
General Election, which is required under section 14 of Tonga’s Electoral
The Commission concluded that ‘the first election under the new
electoral system was fairly conducted in accordance with the Laws of Tonga,
although there are some areas of concern that need to be improved’.
The Chairman remarked:
Two facts highlighted in the Report clearly indicate that
this was an election of momentous importance to the people of Tonga – a turn
out on Election Day of 91% of registered voters and an invalid vote count of only
0.17% of all votes cast, figures which few countries have achieved.
The Electoral Commission’s report also went on to make a number of
n There should be
clearer governance arrangements defining the relationships between the
Electoral Commission and Government including appointment of the Commission’s
n That the Electoral
Commission continues to work out a Strategic Plan to cover the next four years
including the next major electoral event which will allow the Commission to
identify the goals and targets it wishes to achieve.
n That a Commission
website be created to provide more electoral information to the people of Tonga
both locally and abroad.
n That appropriate
provisions under the Electoral Act be reviewed to avoid further donations of
any kind within the three months period before the election.
n That a provision be
added to the Electoral Act to allow for the suspension of polling and
resumption at another time or day in the event of bad weather conditions or
civil unrest which makes the poll or the continuance of polling dangerous or
impossible for electors and that power to suspend polling shall rest with the
n That an additional
form be inserted in a Schedule to the Act showing the format of the Writs and
the information required for the advice of the outcome in the form of a Return
on the Writs.
The Tongan Government invited representatives from Australia and New
Zealand to observe the 2010 General Election. The fourteen observers—nine
Australians and five New Zealanders—included current and former members of
Parliament, senior DFAT officials, a senior electoral commission official, and
other senior government officials. They observed polling on the islands of
Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Eua, visiting 70 polling stations in 16 of the
The election observers concluded that ‘the polling process was extremely
well conducted and completely transparent’, with a peaceful environment
prevailing on polling day. They were impressed by the ‘meticulous preparations
for and conduct of these elections’. Their observations on the process included
n People could vote in
an open and neutral political environment where contending views could be
safely expressed in the election campaign;
n The counting process went
smoothly and was conducted in an efficient, accurate and transparent manner;
n The Electoral
Commission had successfully engaged civil society, churches and the media as
part of their education programs, which led to a high level of voter awareness
on the day;
n Feedback suggested
that the new electoral roll was a significant improvement; and
n Procedures were in
place for any complaints about the election process to be lodged and dealt with
in an even-handed and transparent way.
Much of its education work was done via television, radio and
newspapers. The Electoral Commission anticipates creating its own website to
provide relevant information for Tongans and interested persons.
The Electoral Commission told the delegation that it may need to seek
technological assistance in developing IT systems for administrative and
Parties and forming government
There is no strong political party identification in Tonga. The
Electoral Commission advised the delegation that there was not yet provision in
Tongan law for registered political parties. However, political party affiliations
were evident at the 2010 General Election. Parties included the Democratic
Party of the Friendly Islands, People’s Democratic Party, Sustainable
Nation-Building Party, and the Tongan Democratic Labor Party.
In the absence of a formal party structure, the Democratic Party of the
Friendly Islands had a Memorandum of Understanding amongst its members, which
they used as a shared campaign platform. Many of these candidates were
successful, which they attribute to having that shared party connection. In
discussions during the visit, delegates heard that some Tongans thought that the
country was not ready for a party system. While others felt political parties
would be good for Tonga and were a natural aspect of all democratic governments.
While 12 of the 17 People’s Representatives elected in 2010 were part of
the Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands, the other five People’s Representatives
joined with the nine Nobles to form government. The Prime Minister, Lord
Tu'ivakano, is a noble.
The Tongan Constitution provides that no-confidence votes cannot occur
within the first 18 months of the new government.
Since the delegation’s visit, the Australian Parliament has provided
assistance to the Tongan Parliament in developing the Tongan community outreach
program. As part of the Pacific Parliamentary Partnerships program, a member of
the International and Community Relations Office team travelled to Tonga to
assist the Parliament to develop stronger links with the Tongan people.
The delegation greatly appreciated the time and effort of the many
individuals and organisations in Tonga who met with the delegation during its
visit. Of particular value were people’s personal experiences of the progress
towards democracy in Tonga, and their aspirations for Tonga’s future.
From its discussions, the delegation appreciates that Tonga is a young
democracy and still has many challenges ahead. Stakeholders are seeking further
changes in a number of areas, including:
n a transition to a
fully elected Legislative Assembly, without special provisions made for Nobles;
n resolving land tenure
n improved budgeting;
n public service reform
with greater consultation with relevant groups;
n increasing media
freedoms and non-partisan reporting;
n increasing female
participation in decision-making and representation in Parliament; and
n increasing export
capacity and reducing dependence on remittances.
It is important to continue to foster the people to people, parliament
to parliament, and more structured aid and technical assistance links between
Tonga and Australia. The constitutional and electoral reforms and first
democratic election in November 2010 have been important steps for Tonga.
During this process Australia and Tonga’s relationship has strengthened. It
important that Australia remains a key partner with Tonga in its democratic
Hon Alan Griffin MP
23 May 2012