Tonga’s Cabinet says king’s attempt to sack ministers was unconstitutional

Stephen Wright
Tonga’s Cabinet says king’s attempt to sack ministers was unconstitutional Tonga's King Tupou VI speaks during the High-Level Segment for Heads of State and Government session at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on Dec. 1, 2023.

Tonga’s cabinet has rejected an attempt by the Pacific island country’s king to sack the defense and foreign affairs ministers as unconstitutional and has continued with government business including hosting visiting officials.

King Tupou VI last week withdrew his confidence in Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, in his capacity as defense minister, and also ordered the dismissal of the foreign affairs minister, setting up a possible conflict with the government.

The legal opinion of Tonga’s attorney-general is that Tupou VI’s decision, which was conveyed in a letter by his council of advisors, was “contrary” to Tonga’s constitution, the Cabinet said in a statement it released Tuesday evening.

“Moreover, the current legal advice was consistent with all past advice on the same issue, sent from the Attorney General’s office to the Palace Office,” the statement said. The Cabinet has decided to convey the legal advice to the Palace by letter, it said.

Tonga’s constitution says that cabinet ministers can be removed by the king on the prime minister’s recommendation or a vote of no confidence in Parliament in the case of the prime minister. Tonga, home to about 100,000 people, is the only Pacific island nation to have a constitutional monarch.

Prime Minister of Tonga Siaosi Sovaleni arrives to address the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 23, 2022. [AP]

Tonga in 2010 amended its constitution to remove many of the monarchy’s powers and allowed elections after more than 150 years of royal rule, a change that occurred with the cooperation of the monarch at the time, Tupou V.

Some analysts have said the reforms were incomplete as the monarch, defined as a sacred person in Tonga’s constitution, retains significant authority such as a veto over government legislation. About a third of Parliament’s members are nobles elected by the small group of Tongans who have noble titles.

The shift of powers to an elected Cabinet followed riots in 2006 that devastated the capital Nuku’alofa and were sparked by frustration at lack of economic and democratic progress. Chinese-owned businesses were a particular target during the unrest.  

The friction between the palace and the elected government coincided with a visit to Tonga by New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister and its Pacific minister. 

The Cabinet’s statement said that Sovaleni, who is overseas, had reiterated his confidence in the foreign affairs minister, Fekita ‘Utoikamanu, and that she would welcome and hold official meetings with the New Zealand officials.

‘Utoikamanu, Tonga’s only female cabinet minister, is one of four ministers who can be nominated by the prime minister without being an elected representative. 

Until about 2014, the foreign minister had been a male noble or member of the royal family. Tonga’s constitution empowers the king to make treaties with other nations.

Opposition member of parliament Piveni Piukala said it seemed the monarch had “overstepped.” 

However, a letter from Tupou VI’s Privy Council has less weight than a letter signed by the king himself, he said.

“I don’t see any good that will come out from fighting the king head on,” he said in a radio interview with Australian broadcaster ABC.


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