The inception of the Commissioner for Public Relations Office in 2001 under the Commissioner for Public Relations Act, 2001 carried out traditional Ombudsman type work based on investigations of complaints against the Government and its agencies. The name Commissioner for Public Relations was used from 2001 up to 2016.
From 2001 up to 2014, there were ongoing challenges the Office faced as there was a lack of support from the Government to the Office. During the period 2006 to 2013, the Government did not appoint a Commissioner to head the Office to ensure the functions of the Office to be carried out according to the law. Further, there was lack of resources both in terms of human resources and very limited office space. Moreover, due to lack of leadership, the public had no or little knowledge about the Office because there were no awareness programs conducted by the Office. It reached the point where it was widely debated in Parliament for the Office to be closed because no work was produced from this Office.
In 2014, the Government strongly promoted the principles of good governance and in turn provided ample support to integrity agencies which included the Office. Mr. Aisea H. Taumoepeau, SC, was appointed as the Commissioner for Public Relations in November 2014. Mr. Taumoepeau came into Office with a vision for the Office to be revitalized and strengthened in terms of staff, resources and its legislation. This is to enable the Office’s work to be more effective and efficient.
Through the commitment of the Commissioner and his staff and the support from the Government from 2014-2016, the following milestones were achieved in 2016:
In April 2016, the staff moved to a modern office building after being in a small office for about 15 years. This enabled the engagement of more staff to assist in the work carried out by the Commissioner.
By December 2016 the staff increased from 5 to 21. This increase in staff enabled the Office to carry out its functions effectively and efficiently.
Amendments to the Commissioner for Public Relations Act, 2001 were brought into effect on the 16th of December 2016. The main effects of these changes were:
- The name of the Commissioner for Public Relations is changed to Ombudsman. This is to bring Tonga in line with other countries in calling the head of the Office as the Ombudsman. The Office no longer holds the name “Office of the Commissioner for Public Relation” but is known as “the Office of the Ombudsman”.
- The authority to appoint the Ombudsman shifted from Cabinet to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. This brings independence to the work carried out by the Office as it cannot investigate complaints about Parliamentarians but has jurisdiction to investigate Ministers of the Crown, therefore the need to move was necessary.
- Office of the Ombudsman staff are now removed from being employees of the Public Service Commission and are now employed by the Ombudsman. This shift also brings independence to the work of the Ombudsman and his staff in that it dissipates any perception of bias from the Ombudsman staff toward Government as their employer.
- The Ombudsman has the authority to publish reports. Prior to the amendment the work carried out was private which in turn left the public in doubt of the work carried out by the Office.
In 2017 further developments were put in place in relation to the Office’s logo and setting up of a website. The website contains information about the functions of the Office, instantaneous means of lodging a complaint, information on the professional and robust staff and other relevant information about the Office.
Finally in October 2016, the first ever claim against the Office of the Commissioner for Public Relations was lodged in the Supreme Court. This was a claim challenging the jurisdiction of the Office and stating that the Office did not have the powers to investigate the complaint. On 21st of November 2016 the Supreme Court Judge dismissed the claim. In early 2017, the Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal however decided in March 2017 to withdraw the appeal.
In light of the above achievements and as a means of letting the Tongan public know about the change of name of the Office and the related developments of the Office an event to celebrate the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman, Tonga and the launch of the new website was carried out. This event took place at Tanoa Hotel, Nuku’alofa, Tonga on the 15th of March 2017 and it was broadcasted on the radio and television. This was the beginning of an ongoing outreach program for 2017 which will be conducted by staff of the Office of the Ombudsman on the radio, television, newspapers , on-site clinics and visits to villages and outer islands are planned to be carried out.
We are looking forward to work closely with all stakeholders which includes the Government, its agencies and the public. We envisage this Office’s work to live up to our slogan and for the outcome of our services to be: “Good for you, good for government and good for Tonga!”
Source: Office of the Ombudsman, Tonga