PM’s statement ignores problem caused by his decision not to stand down convicted MPs

COMMENTARY: Prime Minister Hu‘akavameiliku appears to have washed his hands of any wrongdoing over the three Cabinet Ministers who have now lost their seats.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku. Photo/Screenshot (Radio FM87.5)

His press release this afternoon on the Minister’s loss of their appeals against their convictions for electoral bribery in the 2021 election ignores the problem caused by his decision not to stand them down.

Hon. Hu’akavameiliku said he accepted the Court of Appeal’s ruling.

The three Cabinet Ministers  who have now lost their Parliamentary seats are Deputy Prime Minister Poasi Tei, Member for Tongatapu 6 and  Minister for MEIDECC; Finance Minister Tatafu Moeaki, Member for Tongatapu 4 and Sangster Saulala, Member for Tongatapu 7 and Minister of Internal Affairs.

As we argued yesterday, the Ministers should have been stood down and not received any pay or benefits while their appeal was heard.

Had their appeals succeeded, they could have been given back pay to cover the time they were stood down.

Now, however, tax payers will be asking how they are going to recover the salaries and benefits accrued by the Ministers.

Let us consider the chain of events.

  1. The three cabinet ministers were convicted of electoral bribery by the Supreme Court.
  2. The Prime Minister asked the Speaker to defer unseating them.
  3. The Speaker accepted the request
  4. The Ministers applied for a stay of execution
  5. The Ministers continued to sit in Parliament despite their convictions.
  6. The Ministers appealed their convictions
  7. The Court of Appeal dismissed their appeals

The Prime Minister issued a press release saying  due process had been followed – and indeed a very narrowly defined legalistic process was followed – but that process ignored other options open to the Prime Minister.

Hon. Hu‘akavameiliku said the three Cabinet Ministers used the opportunities available to them by law.

The Prime Minister, on the other hand, did not use the opportunity provided by Clause 51 (b) of the Constitution, which gave him the discretion to stand down the Ministers and potentially  save taxpayers money. 

Instead, he echoed the actions of the previous Prime Minister, Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa, who refused to stand down convicted Cabinet Member ‘Akosita Lavulavu after she and her disgraced husband were convicted in the Supreme Court.

In doing so, Hon. Hu‘akavameiliku will have created the perception among his critics that he was guided not by due process, but a desire to follow the principle of tauhi vā, or attempting to keep his good relationship and maintain reciprocal relationships with his convicted ministers.

What should have guided him was a proper desire not to see the taxpayer’s money abused and a wish to protect the reputation of Tonga’s hard-won democracy.

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