Tonga country brief


The Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country that lies to the south of Samoa, and southeast of Fiji. The Tongan archipelago is comprised of 176 islands, 36 of which are inhabited. The islands are divided into three main groups – Tongatapu, Ha'apai and Vav'u. The capital Nuku'alofa is located on the main island of Tongatapu. Tonga's population is approximately 103,000. Tonga is an ethnically homogenous and highly traditional society. Its monarchy is over 1,000 years old and its constitution dates back to 1875. Elections are scheduled to be held in November 2014.

Political overview

Tonga is a constitutional monarchy, making it unique in the Pacific. Following the death of King George Tupou V in March 2012, his younger brother became king and took the title King Tupou VI. As Head of State the King is Commander-in-Chief of the Tonga Defence Services (TDS). The King is advised by a Privy Council whose members he appoints.

System of Government

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. The King retains the right to veto legislation. Under the new arrangements, the Legislative Assembly comprises 17 People's Representatives (PRs), nine Noble Representatives elected from among the holders of Tonga's 33 noble titles, and up to four other 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.

Tonga's first elections under these new arrangements took place on 25 November 2010. The Human Rights and Democracy Party won 12 of the 17 PRs' seats. But its leader, 'Akilisi Pohiva, failed to be elected Prime Minister when the other five PRs' teamed with the nine nobles to elect Lord Tu'ivakano on 21 December 2010. Lord Tu'ivakano also holds ministerial portfolios for Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Information and Communication.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Tonga enjoy a close bilateral relationship, supported by our aid program, defence cooperation, the Tonga Police Development Program (TPDP) and people-to-people links.

As the major defence partner, Australia has provided long-term security assistance to Tonga. The Tonga Defence Services (TDS) has a navy which includes three patrol boats provided by Australia and supported by Australia's Pacific Patrol Boat Program. Australia also participates in the Tonga Police Development Program (TPDP), a joint undertaking between Tonga, Australia and New Zealand, which aims to build police capacity.

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. Tongans have achieved notable success in sport, with Tongan athletes contributing to the Australian Rugby Union and Rugby League teams and the Australian Football League.

In August 2008, the Tongan Government established a High Commission in Canberra.

People to people links

Tonga was the first country to send workers to Australia under the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme (now the Seasonal Worker Program). Tonga is also by far the most successful participant in the Program so far, with over 80 per cent of participants in the program.

Australia Awards

Australia has provided almost 400 scholarships to Tongan students since 1997.

Tertiary-level scholarships are focused on addressing Tonga's skills shortage in the fields of education, health, engineering, and economics and public sector management.

More information on Australia Awards.


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 2013-14, there are 42 planned assignments under the AVID program to Tonga.

Australia's overseas volunteer program, Australian Volunteers for International Development, has a one-stop entry point to Australian volunteering.

Development assistance

The Australia–Tonga Partnership for Development guides Australian aid to Tonga.

Australia and Tonga enjoy close people-to-people links and a common interest in supporting Tonga's recently established democratic system of government. Australia is one of the largest sources of remittances to Tonga, due in part to increasing numbers of Tongan migrants to Australia. Australian aid supports Tonga to pursue effective governance—including prudent economic management and debt reduction—and private sector development, by linking aid payments to mutually agreed reform benchmarks. Support for Tonga to pursue appropriate fiscal and economic policy settings will be the centre-piece of Australia's aid to Tonga in 2014-15. Australia will also support further reforms to improve the business environment and encourage more private investment, including through privatisation of key government-owned enterprises and reforms to make it easier to start a business.

Australia will invest in improved infrastructure, including working in partnership with the World Bank to repair critical infrastructure in Ha'apai damaged by Cyclone Ian, such as airports, roads and ports, and to improve Tonga's road network. Joint Australia-World Bank assistance for road maintenance has helped to create a locally owned road contracting industry by tendering maintenance work in small packages and by providing training and business advice to small contractors. A new renewable energy project co financed by Australia and the Asian Development Bank will install on and off-grid solar energy equipment in Tonga's outer islands to reduce vulnerability to oil price shocks and increase energy efficiency.

Australia will also continue to invest in Tonga's human capital through health and education investments. Support to improve primary and preventative health care in Tonga to reduce the prevalence of non-communicable diseases and improve the quality and efficiency of the health system will be continued. A broader assessment of Tonga's health sector challenges will also be undertaken in collaboration with the Tongan government. Australia is working closely with Tonga and New Zealand to improve the standard of curriculum and teaching in primary schools to help Tonga achieve improved education outcomes.

Australia will also fund a new, high quality technical vocational education and training programme to lift workforce standards and provide employment opportunities to Tongans at home and abroad. In 2014-15, Australia will offer 44 new Australia Awards. Australian aid to Tonga will also support measures to reduce violence against women, increase women's leadership opportunities and promote women's economic empowerment, including by supporting women's increased participation in business and offshore worker schemes.

Details of the proposed expenditure for this program for 2014-15.

Table of estimated expenditure for 2013-14 and actual expenditure for 2012-13 for DFAT's aid program..


ACIAR's program in the Pacific embraces Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries sustain many households in these countries and supply the majority of livelihoods, as well as food security. The ACIAR strategy works towards underpinning the competitiveness and security of these sectors. Women, in particular, have a central role in household food gardening; tree crop production; and marketing of horticultural, tree crop and fisheries products. To achieve sustainable change, ACIAR will help develop innovative approaches that engage, empower and invest in women. Transforming these agricultural, fisheries and forestry systems into sustainable income-generating activities through improved productivity and marketing will enhance food security and self-reliance, and reduce poverty.

For more information:

Direct Aid Program

The Direct Aid Program supports projects which directly contribute to the welfare and the income-generating capacity of poor or disadvantaged groups, or enhance the long-term productivity and sustainability of the physical environment.

Find out more about the Direct Aid Program

Economic overview

Tonga has a small open economy which is vulnerable to external shocks, has limited medium-term economic growth prospects and was hard hit by the recent 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 modest but with 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

Australia's (merchandise) exports to Tonga totalled $7 million in 2012-13 (primarily meat and liquefied propane and butane).  

High level visits

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.

December 2012:  Then Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, the Hon. Richard Marles visited Tonga.

Last Updated: 8 October 2014