New aircraft might not arrive this month as planned amid claims Lulutai airlines operating ‘unlawfully and in the darkness’

The Tonga government has been accused of falsifying its budget to hide the investment of millions of pa’anga on Lulutai airlines and the purchase of a new aircraft.  

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

 The allegations were part of 46 motions made against the Prime Minister in Parliament earlier this month before the failed vote of no confidence.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku survived the no confidence motion, but has been accused of giving misleading responses to the motions.

The government was accused of hiding  behind the Companies Act to allow Cabinet Ministers to become members of Lulutai’s Board of Directors.  

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku was accused of failing in his role as the chairperson of the airline’s board of directors by not responding to Parliamentary letters by people’s MPs asking for financial statements for the years 2020/2021, 2021/2022, 2022/23 and 2023 2024.

The government was accused of breaching the law by failing to submit to Parliament any financial statements for the airline since its inception in 2020.

The purchase of the De Havilland Canada Twin Otter aircraft was confirmed on August 14 when the Prime Minister revealed the news in Parliament after questions from MPs.

Kaniva News carried reports of the purchase earlier this year, along with the news that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs had awarded a tender for the maintenance of the aircraft.

The Parliamentary complaints included allegations that the government planned during 2022/2023 fiscal year and before the fiscal year 2023/2024 to buy the Twin Otter for US$6.25 million or TP$14.7 million, but the government failed to include this in its annual budget submitted to the parliament.

The government allocated US$2 million or TP$4.4 million in the 2022/2023 fiscal year and the purchase was made during 2022/2023 fiscal year, but it was also not included in the estimate, the motions claimed.

The new aircraft was expected to arrive in Tonga this month, according to a letter to Parliament’s Chief Secretary from Lulutai’s chief executive Poasi Tei seen by Kaniva News.

Lulutai airlines could not be reached for comment. A reliable source said it could take a few more months before the aircraft could be flown to Tonga from China through Australia.

The motions said the lack of response from the Prime Minister after the Opposition requested a copy of Lulutai airlines’ financial statement 2023 / 2024 had breached parliamentary rules and Clause 51 of the Constitution which stipulates that “he shall answer all questions put to him by the Legislative Assembly and report everything in connection with his ministry”.

“The government’s Lulutai airlines operates in the darkness and will still be there until the government legalises it under the government’s Public Enterprises Act and plans for its future must be transparent”, the motions said in Tongan. 

The motions said the government’s registration of the airline under the Companies Act was unlawful because all government’s businesses must be registered under the Public Enterprises Act.

Under the Companies Act the government does not have to provide Lulutai’s financial statements to the public or Parliament.

The motions said this was wrong as the law said the government must be accountable for all public money and must submit financial statements to Parliament every year.

Registering the Lulutai Airlines under the Companies Act without also registering it under the Public Enterprises Act put the government in a position to hide its decision making duty, the motions said in Tongan.

The motions said the presence of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Sāmiu Vaipulu, the Minister of Civil Aviation Sevenitini Toumo’ua and the Minister of Finance Tiofilusi Tiueti on the board of directors of Lulutai Airlines constituted a conflict of interest.

If the airline was not registered under the Public Enterprises Act,  it was unlawful for the government to operate the company, the Opposition MPs’ motions said.

The Prime Minister responded in the House and insisted that the set up of the airlines was legal. He said it was a good investment for the people and an opportunity which allowed other partners like Australia and China to assist the service financially. He said Australia did this already. He said the airlines was audited and the result was good which was sent to the AOC.

He said that the money allocated for the aircraft purchase was inserted in the revised budget 2023/ 2024 ended in March, as gift and shares (“me’a’ofa fakangāue mo e ‘inasi”), implying that it was not written in the budget as money for the purchase of the aircraft.

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