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Death in Tonga

April 2012

  • Alexander Downer

Not long after becoming foreign minister I made a visit to Tonga. Now Tonga’s a hard place to get to so I flew there in an RAAF executive jet. I was told by the Australian mission in Nuku’Alofa that the then Crown Prince would meet me at the airport. 

That was my first surprise. Sitting on the tarmac as the aircraft pulled up was a London taxi. You know the sort. Black and boxy with immense room in the back. And out of the back of the taxi emerged a rather corpulent Crown Prince. He greeted me warmly and ushered me into the taxi. It was quite a vehicle. Instead of black plastic or nylon cloth seats as you would find in London, it was upholstered in the finest white Connolly hide. And instead of metal facias and lining, Rolls Royce style walnut had been used.

But the mechanicals were pure London taxi.

The Crown Prince took me in this extraordinary conveyance not to my hotel but to his house which was half way between the airport and the town of Nuku’Alofa. This was my second surprise. The house had none of the characteristics of a Tongan dwelling, not even of a Pacific Island palace. It was a reproduction of a Palladian villa. Pure Italian. The architect had been recruited in Italy and the design based on an 18th century Italian nobleman’s villa.

To be honest, it was a truly elegant place although it looked idiosyncratic in Tonga. The furnishings were clearly carefully chosen by a celebrated European design house. A combination of English eighteenth century furniture and continental drapes and wall paper. Nice.

The Crown Prince introduced me to the manager of the villa who seemed to be the organiser of the ensuing banquet. I know it’s politically incorrect to say this but I want you to understand the scene. She was the most beautiful woman. But you know the sort: beautiful but almost entirely silent! Pity. I like talkers!

And what would you expect to be served for pre-dinner drinks in Tonga? Not, I suspect, vintage French champagne but there it was, crystal flutes and all, from the house on Lanson.

Memorable too was the conversation. The Crown Prince had been educated at the renowned British military academy, Sandhurst. He had acquired the accent of the Sandhurst graduate and many of their interests. For half an hour the Crown Prince and I discussed the relative merits of the generals and admirals of the Napoleonic Wars. It was fun. I don’t find many people share my interest in history.

The banquet was exquisite but it went on and on. By 2 am I was dead tired and still the evening ploughed on. Finally, it was time to go and I was driven to our hotel. It was a world away from the Palladian villa. It was a dump. But I had a bed and I fell into it and mercifully slept.

Well, the years passed, the King died and this unusual Crown Prince became the King.

For someone so supremely aristocratic, the new King became a champion of democracy. In the face of protests against a regime which lacked true democratic legitimacy, he guided Tonga towards what we all understand as democratic norms.

The next time I visited Tonga, we had dinner again at the Palladian villa. This time, the by then King outlined his plans to redevelop Nuku’Alofa’s centre into a reproduction of renaissance Sienna. It was a fine idea but I couldn’t quite understand the maths. The plans looked impressive but the cost was prohibitive. And so it was.

In mid March this year, the King of Tonga died. It was sad he died in his mid sixties. A tear rolled down my cheeks as I read the news. He was a good man. An eccentric for sure but he was a man who had good instincts and a good heart. He knew the virtues of democracy and knew his country had to catch up with the modern world.

This was one of the more idiosyncratic eras of the South Pacific. I had encouraged him and his prime minister to modernise his political system and the King did it. Good on him. And by doing so he had stabilised his country.

There is a message in all this for the new foreign minister, Bob Carr. The South Pacific is part of Australia’s neighbourhood. We are the biggest and most powerful country in the region. Many of the small island states depend on us for their livelihoods and for wise advice. It’s understandable the Australian foreign minister focuses on the big powers of Asia, woos Washington and wrestles with a variety of multilateral issues.

But he has to devote a bit of time every year visiting and getting to know the leaders of the Pacific. What is more, he will enjoy it. And he will enjoy the company of many of the region’s unusual personalities.





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