Tonga country brief


The Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country that lies to the south of Samoa, southeast of Fiji and north of New Zealand. The Tongan archipelago is comprised of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by a population of approximately 103,000. The islands are divided into four main groups – Tongatapu, Ha'apai and Vava'u and the Niuas. The capital Nuku'alofa is located on the main island of Tongatapu.

Political overview

Tonga is a constitutional monarchy, making it unique in the Pacific. Its monarchy is over 1,000 years old and its constitution dates back to 1875. Following the death of King George Tupou V in March 2012, his younger brother became king and took the title King Tupou VI. King Tupou VI’s official coronation will be held on 4 July 2015. As Head of State the King is Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Armed Forces. The King is advised by a Privy Council whose members he appoints.

The governing structure comprises the Executive (Cabinet), Legislature and Judiciary. A reformed constitution was agreed by the Legislative Assembly in December 2009 and implemented through legislation passed in April 2010. The new constitution considerably reduced the King's power, which was devolved to the Cabinet. Cabinet now answers to the Legislative Assembly however the King retains the right to veto legislation.

The Legislative Assembly comprises 17 People's Representatives, nine Noble Representatives elected from among the holders of Tonga's 33 noble titles, and up to four additional members appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister. The King appoints the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the Legislative Assembly.

The most recent election was held in November 2014. The current Prime Minister is the Hon. Samiuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Tonga enjoy a close bilateral relationship, supported by our aid program, Defence Cooperation Program, the Tonga Police Development Program and people-to-people links. The Tongan Government established a High Commission in Canberra in August 2008.

People to people links

Australia is an important focus for Tongans seeking education, travel and business opportunities. The largest communities of Tongans in Australia are in Victoria and NSW, with smaller groups in the ACT and Queensland. Approximately 25,000 Australians identify themselves as of Tongan ancestry.

The Defence Cooperation Program in Tonga includes the provision of Australian Defence Force advisors, a range of training and capacity building initiatives and support for bilateral and regional exercises. Australia also contributes to the Tonga Police Development Program, a joint undertaking between Tonga, Australia and New Zealand, which aims to build police capacity and service standards.

Tonga was the first country to send workers to Australia under the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme (now the Seasonal Workers Program). Tongan workers currently make up over 70 per cent of Seasonal Workers Program participants. Australia is one of the largest sources of remittances to Tonga.

Australia has provided over 440 scholarships (Australia Awards) to Tongan students since 1997. Tertiary-level scholarships are focused on addressing Tonga's skills shortage in the fields of education, health, engineering, economics and public sector management. In 2014-15, Australia offered 44 new Australia Awards for study across diverse subjects including dental surgery; radiography; applied science; environmental law; commerce; teaching (physics, geography, history, English); inclusive education; early childhood education; automotive engineering; mechanical engineering; and official statistics.

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program promotes economic growth and poverty reduction in the Indo-Pacific region by assisting host organisations to deliver effective and sustainable development outcomes. In 2014-15, there have been 20 AVID assignments throughout Tonga.

Development assistance

More information on development assistance to Tonga

Economic overview

Tonga has a small open economy which is vulnerable to external shocks and was hard hit by the Global Financial Crisis. The economy is heavily reliant on remittances from Tongans working overseas and foreign aid. The US is the main source of remittances, followed by New Zealand and Australia. Foreign development assistance in the form of loans, grants and direct aid is an important component of the Tongan economy.

Construction and infrastructure projects funded by donor grants and soft loans are sources of growth. Despite its economic difficulties Tonga remains one of the best performers in the Pacific in terms of progress against the Millennium Development Goals. Agriculture is the leading productive sector. The manufacturing sector is very small.

Tourism is currently modest but with a large potential for expansion. Tonga's main trading partners are New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, the United States and Japan. Most Tongan exports are agricultural produce while imports cover the full range of consumer and industrial goods.

Trade and investment

Australian merchandise exports to Tonga totalled AU$13 million in 2015 (primarily including meat products).

High level visits

In April 2015, Foreign Minister the Hon. Julie Bishop visited Tonga to meet with recently elected Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. The Foreign Minister also visited defence, policing and development projects supported by Australia.

In April 2015, President of the Senate Senator Stephen Parry also visited Tonga. His visit focused on parliamentary links and defence, police and development cooperation.

In July 2014, former Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja visited Tonga in her role as Ambassador for Women and Girls. Ms Stott-Despoja attended the Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Forum hosted by the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Program.

In December 2012, then Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, the Hon. Richard Marles visited Tonga. He had previously visited in March 2012, May 2011 and March 2011.

In March 2012, then Governor-General, H.E. Ms Quentin Bryce visited Tonga to attend the funeral of the late King George Tupou V. She had previously visited in July 2011 for the King's birthday celebrations.

Last Updated: 4 October 2016