Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Ferry inquiry reveals nation's weakness

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It seems almost too far-fetched at times: a black comedy casting Tonga as a kind of South Pacific Fawlty Towers where nothing ever runs smoothly if it can possibly be avoided, and where the main characters seem almost too caricatured and one-dimensional to ring true.

Except that this real-life disaster claimed 74 lives, most of them women and children.

The royal commission of inquiry into the sinking last August of the Princess Ashika is winding up in Nuku'alofa after sitting for more than 50 days, and while it isn't due to report until the end of this month, the writing is already on the wall for some of the protagonists.

Tonga's Prime Minister, Dr Fred Sevele, told the inquiry last week the blame for the country's worst shipping disaster lies with individual failures at various levels, rather than the systemic failure of Government.

But the personal failures are so many and so widespread that it would be hard not to conclude the system that allowed them is as rusty and full of holes as the ill-fated Ashika.

How did Tonga end up buying a 37-year-old ferry from a Fijian family that even the most cursory check would have revealed as "truly unseaworthy", and "a maritime disaster" waiting to happen?

Why was a New Zealander with no marine or engineering experience sent to assess the ferry's condition, and why, with no documentation, was his board of directors prepared to urge the Government to buy it?

Why did Government take his word that the ferry had the necessary certificates, why did it not carry out its own due diligence, and why, when the surveyors at Tonga's Marine and Ports department clapped eyes on the rust bucket their Government had bought, and loudly declared it unsafe and unfit for anything but as a floating nightclub, did nothing get done?

Why, in fact, did their acting director (who told the inquiry he would not have let his own family sail on the Ashika) go ahead and sign two completely contradictory documents, apparently on the same day: one detailing a long list of the ship's fatal deficiencies, including a leaking bow and stern ramp, and the other certifying it was seaworthy, thereby allowing it to carry passengers to their death?

The Tongan police haven't waited around for the commission's answers and have made several arrests.

First up was the former Christchurch businessman John Jonesse (pronounced Jones), who washed up on Tonga's shores a few years ago after a string of failed ventures at home.

Despite a conspicuous lack of references and marine experience, he landed a job with the Government-owned ferry operator, the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia (SCP) as chief executive.

It was Jonesse who checked out the Ashika and recommended its purchase, and Jonesse who's since been charged with forging documentation misrepresenting the ferry's pre-purchase condition.

Next was the Tongan ferry captain, Maka Tuputupu, who admitted he knew the Ashika wasn't seaworthy but claimed he had no authority to stop it from sailing.

The inquiry's latest scalp is the grandly named Lord Ramsay Dalgety, QC, the company secretary for SCP who hails originally from Scotland and who was arrested and charged with malfeasance as he left the hearing last Friday.

Dalgety's evidence, given over several days in January and then again last week, was revealing - and damning. While other witnesses have (at times, tearfully) admitted responsibility for their part in the tragedy, Dalgety has remained staunchly unrepentant about the role he's played in the disaster, adamant he wasn't going to be "the fall-guy".

The big-noting Dalgety is a former Tonga Supreme Court judge and sometime acting Chief Justice. Despite some barely credible dodging under sustained questioning (he signs cheques for a company he claims to be no longer involved with), he was shown to have his fingers in enough pies to wield "considerable power and influence" in Tonga.

In addition to being company secretary for the ferry company and the MBF bank in Tonga, he's also on Tonga's Law Commission, and is chairman of the Electricity Commission where he seems to have been able to set his own salary and to finance his penchant for first-class overseas travel on a regular basis (even when it took the commission's bank account into overdraft).

But while Dalgety's arrogance and sense of entitlement deserve scorn, he's not Tonga's only problem.

As a maritime expert told the inquiry, the Ashika's sinking reflects a systemic problem for the shipping and marine industry in Tonga.

Lack of money means countries like Tonga buy old, second-hand vessels not suited for their purpose, cut corners in operations and maintenance, and fail to adequately train its people (the Ashika's crew had never had an emergency drill, for example.) It also means its most qualified and experienced people are lost to richer countries.

But this doesn't entirely explain away the August 5 tragedy. The officials charged with protecting their fellow Tongans, even the Ashika's crew, weren't ignorant of the ship's glaring deficiencies.

So what was going on? As the commission of inquiry's counsel, Manuel Varitimos, asked, "how does one address the problem of people knowing that vessels are unseaworthy but signing certificates [to say that they are]?"

A report by New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission points to the fact that while the crew knew the Ashika should not have gone to sea, the "personal, economic and social consequences of declining to operate the ship would have been significant for the individuals and families involved".

There's no question that Tonga needs more qualified people, but that wouldn't have been enough last August.

What was needed, as Varitimos suggests, was the kind of fearless independence and willingness to stand up to authority that's not always encouraged in Tongan society.

- NZ Herald

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