Delicate challenge for PM in Tonga

There is a delicate challenge just around the corner for Prime Minister Bill English.

He will soon sit down with a political leader in his 70s, a one-time populist who fought great fights against the establishment but is now seen as capricious, erratic, and behaving like an autocrat.

It is not Winston Peters, who is in the New Zealand political and business delegation touring with English. The need to talk to him is a joy English possibly faces after the general election in three months. (More about the on-tour English-Peters relationship later).

The ageing leader raising political and diplomatic eyebrows is Tonga's first democratically elected Prime Minister, 'Akilisi Pōhiva, who hosts the New Zealand group from Thursday afternoon (NZT).

Pōhiva's behaviour in the past few months has prompted open talk beyond Tonga of him being unwell - everything from the early signs of dementia to ongoing physical ailments have been cited.

He is 76, famous for his years struggling to bring democracy to the Kingdom of Tonga, as an activist, newspaper editor and 'commoner' MP who was once jailed by his own Parliament, charged with sedition and eventually elected to the prime ministership when his party won popular support after constitutional reforms.

Always staunch, and looked down upon by many nobles in the highly stratified Tongan society, Pōhiva has been worrying even his temperamental allies in Tonga and New Zealand by a series of decisions which encourage the fear that he might be in power, but not in control:

* He declared the Tongan Broadcasting Corporation the enemy of the government and its chief executive lost her contract, to protests from political and legal opponents in Tonga and from media freedom advocates for the Pacific. The decision will be challenged in the courts, but the direct interference in the media by the former crusading editor of the Kele'a newspaper is puzzling observers.

* He unilaterally pulled Tonga out of hosting the South Pacific Games in 2019, citing likely costs, even after China had committed $35 million to a stadium attached to one of Tonga's top colleges. The withdrawal has irritated the Games committee, chaired by one of Tonga's nobles, and the region-wide sports bodies and governments who worry who else, at impossibly late notice, must take up the hosting duties.

*  Against a cultural and ecological outcry, he has pushed ahead with developing an area of canals at Popua on the main island of Tongatapu through rock formations rich in heritage.

*  And he talked openly to a press conference, which he called for no discernible reason, of China taking over Tonga because of its workers in the kingdom displaying vastly greater productivity than that of Tongans. At the same event Pōhiva claimed Chinese businesses were paying no tax, but later clarified he was passing on what he'd heard about one entity, not the scores of retail businesses now owned and run by Chinese in Tonga.

In this roiling political context he hosts English on the National Party leader's first visit to Nuku'alofa. New Zealand is home to 60,000 Tongans, with 100,000 still in the islands, and it is both Tonga's main source of imports and leading export market.

New Zealand aid to Tonga totalled $21.6 million in the past year, and English is set to announce further projects to help the country with its energy and sustainability needs.

There are questions, however, of how much longer Pōhiva, PM since 2014, can continue in office. 

The Tongan uncertainty follows two days in the Cook Islands in which English basked in the palpable friendship and regard which Prime Minister Henry Puna and his cabinet hold New Zealand.

At times it was like an election campaign stop - a soft launch for National's re-election bid. You wouldn't get a more receptive audience, if not for the party then for the office of NZ Prime Minister.

English committed to two specific projects - $15m for a telecoms-internet cable from Samoa and French Polynesia and $8m to sort wastewater for Rarotonga's tourist mecca, the Muri lagoon. Both, as it happens, will be of great benefit to Kiwi tourists as the internet and data availability and costs in Rarotonga are generally poor.

He also suggested New Zealand could be open to making it easier for Cook Islanders to receive New Zealand's pension at home.

Both the increased connectivity from the cable and the flexibility with superannuation were cited as ways for the Cooks to keep more people in the islands.

English repeatedly returned Puna's gratitude for Wellington's aid and backing - emphasising New Zealand's thanks for the contribution to the economy and society of the 62,000 Cook Islanders in Aotearoa.

"Can I acknowledge the Hon Peter Dunne and the Rt Hon Winston Peters - who we might need to be negotiating with soon."

In light of the Labour and New Zealand First parties questioning of the impact of migrants on infrastructure and services, it was a telling emphasis of the gains from people coming to the country over time.

Peters' presence on the tour has been interesting to watch. He is something of a rockstar in his own right in the Cooks, almost a mein host at the bar of the famous Trader Jack's on the Avarua waterfront, late into Wednesday night.

At the House of Ariki (chiefs) marae, English pointedly acknowledged Peters before his own ministers Gerry Brownlee and Alfred Ngaro, (and forgot United Future's Peter Dunne) - calling him 'the most senior member of the NZ Parliament'. It was either inspired by the venerable surroundings, or it was a dig at Peters' age.

Later at a formal welcome, English mentioned both Dunne and Peters as people National might have to talk to soon.

"We will be slightly distracted for the next three months - and can I acknowledge the Hon Peter Dunne and the Rt Hon Winston Peters - who we might need to be negotiating with soon".

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