Government’s globe trotting delegation under fire for ‘taking advantage of travelling allowances’

The Tongan government’s decision to send a delegation around the world to consult with Tongans living overseas about their concerns has been criticised.

Minister of Lands and Natural Resources Lord Tu’i’āfitu (second from left) while having dinner at Poppies, Granville Diggers Club, Sydney, while visiting Australia last month as part of the Talatalanoa Programme. Photo/Supplied

The fact that the trip is led by the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources triggered a strong negative reaction since this same Ministry made a similar excursion in 2010s. Its report on people’s concerns was published, but no action seems to have been taken so far.

The trip comes after the Prime Minister had been accused of increasing the government’s travelling budget with $8 million to a total of $21 million without submitting it to the parliament for approval according to the law.

It also comes after criticisms against the former Tu’i’onetoa government’s national fast and prayer services tour around the outer islands during the Covid-19 pandemic international border lockdowns.

Critics argued that the real intention behind that trip was for the government officials to collect fish, food and handicrafts from the people as well as using the government’s travelling allowance budget to benefit the Ministers and their spouses.

Public dissatisfaction

Kaniva News understands this Ministry is one of the government Ministries which received the most complaints due to the public dissatisfaction with their services.

We received some complaints from Tonga recently that some people arrived at the Ministry’s office expecting to get their land applications approved only to be told the Minister had left the country on a holiday leave.

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Some were told their land applications could not be processed  because the deputies who supposed to work on them had gone on leaves as well.

As we reported recently, people’s disappointments with the Ministry in the way it handled their land needs led to 173 land court cases in the past 10 years. Many of the decisions from the Land Court on these cases blamed the Minister for Lands for part of the failure of claims in  land disputes.

Australian tours

The Minister of Lands, Lord Tu’i’afitu, and a team of officials are currently in Australia. They will be there until Friday and then travel to the United States of America and New Zealand.

Meetings have been held in Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney and was expected to be concluded in Brisbane. The Ministry said the programme would address key areas of improvement, share updates, and provide important information about land. It included explaining how land processes work, addressing concerns and working closely with Tonga’s High Commission offices overseas, to make land-related transactions easier.

Referred to officially as the Toe Talatalanoa Overseas Programme, the mission was launched after Kaniva News asked the Ministry’s acting chief executive about the lack of action over the 2012 report.

Internet technologies

Critics wondered why the Ministry did not use its social media accounts or a free customer feedback online form on its website to consult with Tongans overseas to avoid the huge travel costs, which would normally be paid from the public purse.

Tongans in Sydney meet with officials from Tonga. Photo/Ministry of Lands (Facebook)

Some comments from Democratic Movement supporters, known as PTOA on Facebook, as well as commenters on Kaniva News Facebook accounts after we published a story previously about this trip, were quick to say it was all for money to the travellers’ pockets.

“This is another way of the travellers  “penipeni” (begging for money). We can easily tell this is a new way of getting money into their pocket”, a commenter wrote in Tongan.

“The nurses went on strike and the PM said he was looking at the affordability. This trip is one of the things he should have cancelled and used that money to increase the nurses pay”, another wrote. 

“They are doing this because of the travelling allowance”. another commented.

Other Facebook groups agreed.

“Junket? Could have been done at a fraction of the cost, and saved a lot of time, using video conferencing…financial expediency”, a Facebook administrator on another group wrote.

A success

Meanwhile, the meetings around New South Wales and Melbourne had been reported on Facebook as a success.

The Ministry has updated its Facebook account yesterday and described the meetings with Tongans in Sydney as an “impactful journey of the ‘Toe Talatalanoa Overseas Program”.

“In Sydney, the program unfolds through three Talatalanoa sessions and appointments at various venues, forging meaningful dialogues and addressing pressing concerns of the Tongan community in Australia”, it said.

The Minister of Lands and Natural Resources was contacted for comment.

We have also asked him who paid for their travel costs.

We also asked the Minister why the ministry did not make use of its website and social media for the consultation to avoid costs incurred.

Kaniva News also asked him whether the Minister had any plan to make sure the public was kept informed about what actions were taken in response to the consultation.

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