A final word – for the moment – on conflicts of interest, quarry contracts, public perceptions and not learning from ‘Akilisi Pōhiva’s mistakes

‘Oatu pe ki’i fakamatala to’o konga lalahi ko ‘eni mahalo na’a ‘aonga ange ia ki he kau laukonga faka-Tonga’ - ‘A ia ‘oku peheni. Oku ‘ikai fiema’u ia ke toki maumau'i 'e taha ha lao ka e toki lau kuo hoko 'a e me'a ko 'eni 'oku ui ko e conflict of interest. ‘E ‘osi fe’unga ‘ānoa pe ‘a hono fakamahino kuo ‘i ai ‘a e felālāve’i fakapisinisi, fāmili, pe taautaha mo e sino faitu’utu’uni’ ke lau kuo hoko ‘a e fepaki ‘o e fiema’u’ pe COF. Ko e fakatātā lelei ki heni ne ‘osi ‘oatu pe ki mu’a he ‘atikolo Commentary ‘a e Kaniva’ fekau’aki mo e Palēmia ‘o Tunisia ne fakafisi ‘uhi pe ko e COF. Ne ‘ikai ke ne fai ‘e ia ha hia pe maumau’i ha lao ngāue kākā makehe mei he’ene maumau’i pe ‘a e COF. Na’a ne maumau’i ‘e ia ‘a e COF koe’uhī he ne ‘i ai hono sea (‘inasi) ‘o na he kautaha ne foaki ki ai ‘a e konituleki lauimiliona ‘a e pule’anga’. Ko e me’a ia ‘oku ui ko e hoko tonu ‘a e COF ‘o hange tofu pe ko e me’a ko ‘eni ‘oku hoko he felālāve’i ‘a e kau konitulekitoa uta maka ko ‘eni ‘i Tonga’ mo e pule’anga ‘o Tu’i’onetoa. Ne ‘i ai e faka’uhinga ‘a e Palēmia’ Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa ki he COF ne natula peheni hono fakalea’ – “Kapau ‘e fai ‘etau fa’ahinga faka’uhinga fakaTonga ko e ‘uhinga ‘o e conflict of interest ko e ‘ai fakapone pea ta ‘e ‘ikai toe ma’u faingamālie ha taha ia hato foha pe famili ‘oku nau totonu ki ha fo’i ngāue he fa’ahinga faka’uhinga ko ia’.” ‘I he anga ‘o e vakai’ ‘oku tōnounou e faka’uhinga ia ko eni fakalōsiki mo ‘ēfika ‘aki eni. Kapau ‘e fulihi e fo’i faka’uhinga’ ni ‘o ‘ai ki he kakai ‘oku nau fe’auhi mo ha ni’ihi kuo ‘i ai hanau fāmili pe maheni tonu ‘o kinautolu he kau faitu’utu’uni pe ko hai te ne ma’u ha faingamālie ki ha fo’i ngāue pea ‘e peheni leva ‘a e faka’uhinga, ‘o hangē ko e faka’uhinga ‘a Tu’i’onetoa’ – Ta ‘e ‘ikai toe ma’u ‘e taha kehe ia ha fo’i ngāue ‘oku ‘i ai ha’ane totonu ki ai ‘e ma’u pe ia ‘e kinautolu ‘oku ‘i ai honau fāmili pe tautonu pe felave’i maheni pe fakangāue mo e kau faitu’utu’uni’. Hangē ko e lea Tonga’ ko e ‘Umu Po’uli Kae ‘I ai Ho’ota! Ne toe ‘i ai mo ‘ene faka’uhinga ‘e taha ‘o pehe ko e me’a mahu’inga pe ke muimui ki he fakalea ‘o e lao’ pe word of the law. ‘Oku ta’ekakato ‘a e faka’uhinga ko ‘eni he ‘oku ‘i ai mo e me’a mahu’inga ko e spirit of the law. ‘Oku ‘i ai ‘a e laumālie ‘o e lao ‘oku ‘ikai fa’a makupusi ia ‘e he mata’i tohi kuo tohi’i’aki ‘a e kupu’i lao’. ‘E toki fakaa’u ‘a hono ‘uhinga’i ‘o e lao’ ‘i hano vakai’i ‘a e laumālie na’e tu’unga ai hono fatu’ mo e me’a na’e taumu’a ki ai ke ne ta’ofi ‘oua na’a hoko ai ha maumau hange ko e fakakaukau ‘o e COF. ‘Oku 'ikai ko ha fakakaukau lelei ‘a e fa’ahinga faka’uhinga leva ‘oku hā mei he ‘Eiki Palēmia’ ke ma’u ‘e ha kau ma’u mafai hangē ko ia’ he malava ke 'i ai e taimi ia te nau mafaifai hono fa’u ‘a e ngaahi polosēki ‘a e pule’anga ‘o taumu’a pe ke fakatoli’a e fiema’u ‘a honau ngaahi famili tonu, maheni, kakai ‘oku tokoni fakapa’anga kia kinautolu ‘i he ‘uhinga fakapolitikale ‘o tatau pe ia pe ‘oku nau ma’u ‘a e taukei pe pōto’i ki he ngāue ko ia’ pe ‘ikai.

Commentary: Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa has told Kaniva News that he will not discuss the perception  of conflict of interest surrounding the quarry debate any further.

That is a pity. The issue needs debating because it has happened before and is likely to happen again. So here are – for the moment – our final thoughts on the matter.

(L-R) Saia Moehau of City Engineering and Construction Limited, and a strong supporter of People’s Party; PM Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa; Lord Nuku, used to be a Director for Island Dredging but his name was taken off the director’s list on July 31 last year. His son Faka’osifono Valevale is the current Director of Island Dredging; Etuate Lavulavu, Tongan People’s Party Deputy Chairman, was made a Director of Inter-Pacific Limited in February 2016 but was later replaced by ‘Inoke Finau Vala in May this year.

Tonga is a very small country and a majority of people are either related, went to the same school or attend the same church.

Some people become politicians and some become public servants and some become business people. And somewhere along the way they will inevitably intersect and decisions will be made that will raise questions about conflict of interest.

It has to be underlined that there is no suggestion that anybody has benefitted financially from the quarry deal.


The Prime Minister is absolutely  correct in saying that the deal of TP$70 per truckload will save the government a lot of money and help it  complete a road project that the public  clearly wants.

Hon. Tu’i’onetoa is quite right in defending the government from any charges of criminal activity or financial benefit.

Unfortunately, that is not the point. There does not have to be illegality for questions of conflict of interest to arise. The mere fact of a business, family or personal relationship is enough for that to happen.

The point is that the government kept details of the  contract from the public for several months, ignored obvious public disquiet when information leaked online and has tried to brush off the situation ever since.

Government is all about perception. That is a vital lesson that this government  needs to learn. All of the guidance to MPs and public servants around the world that we have seen says that governments must  be seen to be above reproach.

Being regarded as an honest and trustworthy government is not just about avoiding criminal activity or corruption or nepotism or fraud. It is about understanding the difference between corruption and conflict of interest and acknowledging that what is seen as the potential for wrongdoing is just as great a concern than actually committing a crime.

A leading Norwegian think tank says: “In reality, conflict of interest is properly understood as a situation, not an action, and it is clear that a public official may find him or herself in a conflict of interest situation without actually behaving corruptly.”

“The concept of conflict of interest does not refer to actual wrongdoing, but rather to  the potential to engage in wrongdoing.”

The potential is what the public – the voters – see. That is what all governments have to be wary of.

In August this year the Canadian government was the centre of a financial scandal. Ethics experts told MPs that public office holders must be as careful to avoid the impression of conflict of interest as they were to avoid actual breaches of ethics law.

Robert Czerny, former president of the Ethics Practitioners’ Association of Canada, told MPs that even the appearance of a conflict of interest was capable of eroding public confidence in government.

“Avoiding the appearance of a conflict interest is no less important than avoiding its actual occurrence,” Czerny told MPs.

Another expert said that when a conflict of interest wasn’t dealt with properly, public trust could be lowered.

This is a trap into which the previous government fell. When the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva appointed his son as his PA in 2015, many Parliamentarians and members of the public were angry and bewildered.

Hon. Pohiva did not think he had done anything wrong. He obviously sincerely believed that it was appropriate to appoint his son because he understood him best and he would be paid out of the Prime Ministerial salary.

Unfortunately, to a lot of Tongans, the late Prime Minister was engaging in precisely the kind of nepotism and corruption that he had fought for so long.

Brushing aside public criticism and concern did not help Hon. Pohiva in the long run and helped to damage his reputation.

It was a lesson from which  the current government should have learned.

The government could have avoided this problem by following simple procedures. The quarry tender process should have been carried out openly and at arms length by an independent body. If necessary it could have been handled through New Zealand or Australia, just so that the government was seen to be absolutely hands-off.

Then, if the same companies were awarded the tender purely on a financial basis, as Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa has said, nobody could complain.

The government should also have been very careful to consider that a  number of the people involved in the quarry contracts have been the subject of serious allegations or adverse findings in the courts.

Nobody is suggesting for a moment that they have engaged in any way illegally or benefitted financially from the tender process.

However, this is once again a matter of public perception. We acknowledged that public perceptions are not always right, but a sensitive – and sensible – government would keep such matters in mind.

Some time ago we used a verse from the Old Testament in another political context and doubtless we may feel obliged to use it again. That verse, from Thessalonians 5:22, says “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

It’s a simple idea. If you don’t give people any cause to think you are doing anything wrong, or aren’t being completely honest, then they will trust you and will turn to you. If you don’t, the people will turn away from you at the next election.

As we have said throughout this article, politics is all about perception. The late ‘Akilisi Pohiva forgot that on one or two occasions and it did him and the Democrats no good at all.

Sometimes when a business is growing, it needs a little help.

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