There were no surprises in the report of the royal commission of inquiry into the sinking of the Tongan ferry Princess Ashika. It was negligence, indifference and incompetence right down the line – from the prime minister and the minister of transport, down through the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia and its “deplorable’ chief executive and “evasive” secretary, to the ferry's master (who slept while the ferry was sinking) and the first mate. All could have acted to avert the tragedy. None did, due to either a shocking disregard for the duty of care owed to the public of Tonga, or to a catastrophic failure of imagination, or perhaps both.
While there is some satisfaction in learning that New Zealander John Jonesse, the Shipping Corporation CEO, faces a manslaughter charge, along with the Princess Ashika’s master and first mate, you have to wonder whether the charges announced so far get to the heart of the matter. They introduce an element of accountability, if only post-facto, that was otherwise lacking. But the evidence heard by the commission suggested a much bigger collective failing; one that couldn’t be pinned on any individual. It was all to do with not rocking the boat, if you’ll pardon an unfortunate pun. People who could have prevented the Princess Ashika sailing, knowing it was a death trap, appear not to have acted because they didn’t want to make a fuss or risk upsetting their superiors. This seems to have taken precedence over the need to ensure the safety of the ferry’s passengers.
Jonesse, the master and the first mate were easy targets (as was the pompous and self-important Lord Dalgety QC, the Shipping Corporation secretary, who has been placed under house arrest and faces a charge of perjury). But how do you pin charges on an entire government culture that encourages deference to authority at the expense of the public interest? That’s surely the bigger underlying issue.
Tonga is an oligarchy ruled by a small and wealthy elite; a country where, under present arrangements, 10 of the 14 members of the cabinet are appointed by the monarch for life. It is a country where the law decrees that traffic must pull over and stop when the king travels by – the same useless king who abandoned his people immediately after the sinking of the Princess Ashika so that he could dress up and hob-nob with dignitaries at the Edinburgh Tattoo. It is a country that suppresses freedom of speech and where you criticise the monarchy at your own risk.
Under constitutional changes to be introduced later this year, the king’s powers will be reduced and a more democratic parliament elected. These belated reforms can partly be attributed to the riots of 2006, which caused $100 million worth of damage; even long-suffering Tongans can run out of patience. But in the meantime the culture of deference to authority persists, and you have to wonder to what extent it can be blamed for the Princess Ashika tragedy.
You also have to wonder whether the pending constitutional reforms will make much difference. The report of the royal commission was to be made public at the king’s pleasure (yes, the same king who clearly considered the sinking less important than the Edinburgh Tattoo). The findings were still being withheld from the Tongan public long after they had been reported in the New Zealand media. That would be unthinkable in any western democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more emphatic gesture of contempt for the Tongan people’s right to know.