Editorial: Ferry tragedy reveals a kingdom full of holes

Last updated 05:00 10/04/2010

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OPINION: The report of the Tongan royal commission of inquiry into the sinking of the ferry Princess Ashika has laid bare a system of government as riddled with flaws as the ship was with rust – and just as dangerous.

Three people have been charged with manslaughter as a result of the sinking. Their culpability will be determined by the courts, but the danger is that the prosecutions of Shipping Corporation of Polynesia managing director John Jonesse, ferry captain Makahokovalu Tuputupu and first mate Viliami Tu'ipulotu will be used by those in power as scapegoats and, now that a replacement ferry funded by the New Zealand and Australian governments has arrived, it will be business as usual.

That would be a disgrace. The commission makes it clear that the problems are deep-seated, noting "there were many causes of the disaster. The tragedy is that they were all easily preventable and the deaths were completely senseless. It was scandalous that such a maritime disaster could ever have been allowed to occur. It was a result of systemic and individual failures".

The three criminal prosecutions – and any others that might yet be launched – will deal with the individual failings.

However, it is up to the king to deal with the systemic ones that allowed people such as Lord Dalgety QC (the title is Tongan), now resigned transport minister Paul Karalus and Prime Minister Feleti Sevele into pivotal roles in his kingdom. The report notes that Lord Dalgety, the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia company secretary, "clearly lacks integrity and honesty, even when giving evidence before a royal commission" and that "he was not a fit and proper person to be a company secretary of any company in Tonga".

Of Mr Karalus it says that any suggestion he made that the Princess Ashika was "in good condition or well maintained is not only patently absurd, but dishonest".

And of Mr Sevele it says he failed to produce relevant e-mails, despite being required to do so, and with no valid excuse for that failure.

The Tongan Government response was to say yesterday that its supply of information to the commission was "exemplary" and to accuse the commission of provocation and of allowing "politically motivated irrelevancies in its proceedings". That does not suggest a willingness to change.

What is needed now is for the king to be brave enough to push through changes that promote true accountability to the people. New Zealand should be doing what it can to encourage that, and should look at working with other donor countries and putting caveats on aid money.

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What must not be forgotten in all this is that 74 people drowned. No women or children survived. The impact in a country the size of Tonga is, as commentator Josephine Latu has pointed out, the equivalent of 3200 New Zealanders dying. The Princess Ashika tragedy was a scandal that cannot be repeated.

- The Dominion Post

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