The exercise of a power of veto by the king is contrary to what George V envisaged, according to former New Zealand High Commissioner to New Zealand Christine Bogle.

Writing in her doctoral thesis,  Democratisation in Asia-Pacific Monarchies, Bogle said an unsigned paper written  by King George said: “In line with the conventions of Constitutional Monarchy [the Sovereign] would withhold assent only where the legislation in question was an affront to the Constitution or an abuse of power e.g Parliament attempting to prolong its life beyond four years.”

The veto power had been exercised on several occasions by King Tupou VI, on the advice from his privy council about legislation from the governments of Lord Tu’ivakanō and ‘Akilisi Pohiva governments.

As detailed in earlier stories on Bogle’s research, the king has also used his powers to dismiss the government. In August 2017, King Tupou VI dissolved parliament and called elections for November 2017 on the basis of a number of concerns about the government expressed by the Speaker.

Bogle described the king’s actions as “constitutional, but hardly democratic.”

No abolition

However, despite the present monarch’s apparent opposition to the continuing development of democracy in the kingdom, as Bogle points out, the democracy movement did not seek the abolition of the monarchy, but rather a lessening of its involvement in politics.

“Nor did they urge a complete overhaul of the 1875 constitution, but rather respect for the rights and freedoms set out in it, and revision to allow greater political rights,” Bogle wrote.

“The democratic movement also expressed concerns about royal involvement in business – some (but not all) of them fairly dubious arrangements resulting from Tupou IV’s increasingly ambitious and unrealistic schemes to enrich the kingdom.

“Tupou IV was also prey to costly proposals from unscrupulous foreigners.”

Bogle described Hon. Pōhiva as a vocal opponent of the kingdom’s traditional system and the most high profile of the young activists who began working for democratic change.

Bogle said that overseas study, plus emigration and temporary work schemes, meant that Tongans had become familiar with the democratic systems operating in New Zealand, Australia, the US and elsewhere.

“From these beginnings a pro-democracy movement began in the late 1980s, originally seeking more accountability from the government,” Bogle said.

“His initial calls for more government accountability evolved into questioning the undemocratic political system itself.”

As well as ‘Akilisi Pōhiva and other young activists and People’s Representatives, the movement included forward-thinking church leaders, especially Catholic Bishop Patelesio Fīnau and Free Wesleyan Reverend Dr ‘Amanaki Havea, who spoke out against the lack of political rights of the people.

The pro-democracy movement also began to engage with the royal family, whose younger members were  becoming more conscious of the political stagnation in the country.

Cede powers

George V announced in September 2006 that he would give up his business interests, cede his executive powers, and lead the country towards a more democratic system. The process was interrupted by rioting in November of that year.

The Constitutional Reform Commission received submissions and produced recommendations, which were adopted by parliament in advance of elections under the new system in November 2010.

Since then the democratic party of Hon Pōhiva has come to power and won a second election, but arguments about the relative powers of the monarch and the government continue.

Bogle said this was illustrated by the uncertainty about the demarcation between the king’s and the government’s responsibilities for foreign affairs. In 2015 the Pōhiva cabinet, as the culmination of a long consultation process including the previous government, decided to sign the United Nations convention on the elimination of discrimination against women (CEDAW).

However, the government’s advice to the UN of its intention to accede was subsequently withdrawn after the ‘King in Council’ advised the government that decisions to sign on to international conventions were the prerogative of the monarch.

This was based on a contested interpretation of the constitution provided by the Law Lords.

The main points

  • The exercise of a power of veto by the king is contrary to what George V envisaged, according to former New Zealand High Commissioner to New Zealand Christine Bogle.
  • King George said: “In line with the conventions of Constitutional Monarchy [the Sovereign] would withhold assent only where the legislation in question was an affront to the Constitution or an abuse of power e.g Parliament attempting to prolong its life beyond four years.”

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