Tonga country brief

Overview

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 106,000. 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 was 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.

Tonga represents over 60 per cent of the more than 14,200 Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) participants to date. 8,580 Tongan workers (1,074 women, 7,506 men) have been granted visas to participate in the SWP since it commenced as a permanent programme in July 2012. Australia is one of the largest sources of remittances to Tonga.

Australia has provided over 482 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 2015-16, Australia offered 20 new Australia Awards to Tongan students. Under the New Colombo Plan, 16 Australian undergraduate students were funded to undertake mobility placements in 2015, with a further 20 students being supported in 2016. Fields of study include nursing and tourism.

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 2015-16, Australia supported 34 AVID assignments throughout Tonga.
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.

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 foreign aid and remittances from Tongans working overseas. 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

Two-way trade between Australia and Tonga was valued at $73 million (in goods and services) in 2015. Tongan exports are mostly made up of agricultural produce, which include root crops, fish and squash pumpkins. Major imports are food and beverage items and fuel.

In 2015, Australia's goods exports to Tonga totalled approximately $13 million (including meat, herbicides, pesticides, aircraft parts, gold coin and legal tender coin and medicaments). Tonga’s goods exports to Australia totalled approximately $1.64 million (mainly fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts).

High level visits

In September 2016, Minister for International Development and the Pacific the Hon. Fierravanti-Wells visited Tonga. This visit focused on political, economic, defence, policing and education links. The Tonga-Australia Aid Partnership was also signed, reflecting Australia and Tonga’s shared development priorities and providing a clear strategic focus for our aid investments over the next three years.

This visit follows four high-level visits to Tonga in 2015 by Foreign Minister Bishop (April 2015), President of the Senate Parry (April 2015), the Governor-General and Lady Cosgrove (July 2015), and a parliamentary delegation led by the then Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Mr Ciobo with MPs Jane Prentice, Sharon Claydon and Nola Marino (December 2015).

Last Updated: 20 February 2017