The Government of Tonga has come under sharp criticism for apparent lack of transparency and accountability in its proposed sale of shares from Tonga Cable Limited to telecommunications company, Digicel.
Tonga Cable Ltd. is one of the most profitable public enterprises. It is wholly owned by the Government, and has 20% ownership by Tonga Communications Corporation (TCC), probably the most profitable of all the Government enterprises.
Lord Nuku, Noble Representative from ‘Eua, raised in Parliament why Government conducted negotiations to sell shares of a Government owned enterprise without bringing it first to Parliament.
It was revealed that Government through their Ministry of Public Enterprise has been negotiating to sell 20% shares of Tonga Cable Limited to Digicel.
When asked why Government was keeping this “a secret”, the Prime Minister Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva said they wanted to complete the negotiations “before they bring it to Parliament.” He did not see there was anything irregular about what the Government had done.
Obviously, a bigger question was raised as Parliament went into a vigorous debate on the issue: “Who was Government really accountable to?”
Opposition members were arguing that something as significant as the selling of national assets such as “shares in a public enterprise” should at least be made known to Parliament from the very beginning.
Lord Nuku argued that if this so-called democratic Government was ultimately accountable to the people, and Parliament is the body made up of elected representatives of the people, the Government has made a serious infringement on being accountable to the people.
The noble representative claimed the Government was undemocratic in their actions in regards to the sale proposal.
More importantly it was statutory that Government be accountable to Parliament, and especially in major asset transactions as proposed in the Tonga Cable Ltd asset sales.
Lord Fusitu’a, one of the top lawyers in the House, asked that if the idea of selling Tonga Cable Ltd. assets was right, then why did the Government chose a foreign corporation to sell to? Why didn’t the Government approach Tongan companies, he asked.
Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni argued that Digicel was a Tongan company, meaning that it was registered in Tonga.
Lord Fusitu’a shot back: “But it is wholly foreign owned.”
Government sources say the reason for the sale of shares is to raise the money for work to significantly improve the Internet connections for Vava’u and Ha’apai.
While the services have improved significantly for Tongatapu because of the optic fiber cable connection to Fiji, Ha’apai and Vava’u were still unaffected. The Government revealed it would take $5 million to install what was needed to bring the northern islands up to par with Tongatapu.
At the end of the Parliament session, it was still inconclusive what will happen, but there was a strong proposal that Government look into having the multimillion Pa’anga Retirement Fund invest in the Tonga Cable Limited so work on improvement of the Ha’apai and Vava’u projects could be carried out.