Ready, Set, Spin!

Editorial by Kalafi Moala

The Government has only been in power six months, and is already well established in double talk and information spinning. This has become very apparent in the recent saga of the NDC report, written as a result of a Government Commissioned enquiry or investigation into the Nuku’alofa CBD Reconstruction Project, which is funded mostly by a Chinese soft loan, as well as an Australian and New Zealand financial assistance.

PMO reacts to NDC Report

In a Press Release on 22 June, in reaction to news reports on the NDC Report, the Government stated outright that the Report is “inadequate”, meaning it did not say what they wanted it to say.

It also stated that the findings of the researchers, Dr Teena Brown Pulu and Melino Maka, are deemed “unreliable and inadequate for action.” The Government Press Release went on to state the reasons, firstly, that the report “does not at all fulfil the key objectives and terms of reference of the exercise, including, providing a verifiable and accurate account of how the loan funds have been used under the NDC.”

While the authors of the Report may need to answer directly to Government about this incredible charge, it is however very clearly stated in the Report that there is verifiable and accurate account of how the loan funds have been used. The Report goes on to say that all the financial transactions in the Project has been audited by the Government Auditor. Obviously, that is not enough for the Government.

It is interesting to note that the Press Release was sent out as a Government Press Release, even though the Report has not been tabled before Cabinet, which is to take place on 24 June. The reaction therefore to the Report is presumed to come directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, where the advisors under the researchers’ scrutiny work.

One of the Report’s recommendations  is that advisors to the Prime Minister are alleged to have given him false and unverifiable information and need to be dismissed. Obviously in carrying out their investigation, it seems that the researchers have found that part of the problems associated with the Project which needs to be addressed, is the transmission of information concerning the Project that is based on rumours and on personalised opinion on the part of the advisors. The Report authors’ concern is that decision-making by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, if based on false information, would be detrimental to the development and future of the nation.

The view from the Prime Minister’s Office

But, the Prime Minister’s Office views this as personal attacks on its advisors and consultants, and cites that “the report exceeds its mandate by making political statements while not fulfilling its own terms of reference.”

It is understandable that the Prime Minister’s Office did not expect the Report to question the expertise and qualification of the Prime Minister’s advisors. The investigation was to focus on “other parties” whom the Government has had information they could be suspected of questionable practices in relation to the Reconstruction Project.

Because the researchers sourced most of their findings from the parties the assignment was to review, the Prime Minister’s Office “calls into question the report’s integrity and credibility.” Apparent from this statement in the Government Press Release, it may be concluded that the Government wanted certain parties involved in the Reconstruction Project to be investigated. In essence, they possibly expected some “dirt” to be dug up concerning these parties.

This is clearly pointed out in statements made by Mr Tukua Tonga, Project Director of the National Technical Advisory Committee, alleging that Ca’Bella  Pacific Construction Limited is “making millions” from the project, and that they need to be replaced by himself and his Planning and Urban Management Division.

Is this one of the “political statements” alleged by the Prime Minister’s Office to have been stated in the Report?

Transparency and hypocrisy

In the letter of authorisation of Dr Pulu and Maka’s assignment on the 29th of April, signed by the Prime Minister, Lord Tu’ivakano himself, it is stated, “this is a high priority assignment of national economic development importance.” It is also stated that this is part of the Government’s exercise of transparency consistent with good governance.

But since the Report has been released, and after over a week of silence from the Prime Minister’s Office, they finally reacted and issued a statement because of the news report on the Report put out by Taimi Media Network. But before the Press Release of the 22 June, a letter went out to Dr Pulu and Melino on 15 June cancelling and counting void their assignment.

The rhetoric concerning transparency is being overused quite hypocritically on many Government Press Releases. What kind of transparency is it, that an assignment of “high priority to Government” was made yet no Press Releases or information sent out on it? That was over two months ago.

When the Report was submitted to the Prime Minister and to Government, more silent treatment from the Prime Minister’s Office. No Press releases. This “high priority assignment” of importance to the development of the nation is kept a secret. What kind of transparency is this? When the first news report on the Report went out, the only response that the local media that published the news got was “how did you get this report?” And then when Tonga’s public finally gets a word from Government, it is a spin coming from its Information Spin Machine.

It is also stated from the Prime Minister’s Office “the Government will consider appointing another team to carry out a comprehensive review of NDC operations that is more qualified and complete.” Does this mean that Government will keep seeking for a team of researchers that will end up saying in a report the things they want them to say? Has Government already come to its own conclusion there are “guilty parties” in relation to NDC, they just need someone to find the evidence?

Who is to blame?

For the Report to be deemed inadequate and unreliable by the Prime Minister’s Office, amounts to questioning the integrity and credibility of Dr Pulu and Melino Maka. If this is the line the Government is taking, the Prime Minister himself is to be blamed. He gave Dr Pulu and Maka the assignment. Now that the Report does not match his expectation (or his advisors’ expectations), does not that question his own judgment in the people he assigns to work for him? Is not this a classic case of shooting the messenger? Furthermore, how much were the researchers paid, and from what funds were they paid from, considering that Government hardly can afford extra expenditures?

Probably, the question that needs to be answered is whether this assignment should have been done at all? It seems all it did, for this new Government, is to give the previous Government a clean bill of health in relation to the NDC and the Reconstruction Project, of which by the way, the Prime Minister was an intricate part of the previous Government; and it questions the qualification and expertise of the people the Prime Minister has surrounded himself with.

Wherever this path leads – of new Government playing old politics, spin doctors at work to twist information, civil servants serving themselves – the question looms whether this Government in a democratic system is going to start practicing democracy or reverting Tonga back to the political habits and lifestyles of the 1990s?





One Response to Ready, Set, Spin!

  1. Full Disclosure says:

    For the sake of full disclosure, and journalistic integrity, should not this editorial mention that one of the people involved in the NDC is former Prime Minister Lord Fred Sevele, who has also been financially involved in the Taimi?

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