Tonga country brief

Overview

The Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country that lies to the south of Samoa, southeast of Fiji and north east 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 2017. The current Prime Minister is the Hon. Samuela ‘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 32,000 Australians identify themselves as of Tongan ancestry.

Tonga represents almost 60 per cent of the 31,344 Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) participants to date. 14,569 Tongan workers (1,929 women, 12,640 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 572 scholarships (Australia Awards) to Tongan students since 2007. Tertiary-level scholarships are focused on addressing Tonga's skills shortage in the fields of education, health, engineering, economics and public sector management. In 2018, Australia offered 57 new Australia Awards to Tongan students.

By the end of 2020, the New Colombo Plan alumni will have grown to around 40,000 young Australians with experience of living, studying and undertaking work experience in the Indo-Pacific. Nearly 160 will have undertaken mobility projects in Tonga, in fields of study including nursing, tourism, and sustainability.

The Australian Volunteers Program matches a broad range of skilled Australians with partner organisations in the Indo-Pacific region, to support them to achieve their own development goals. By supporting sustainable development, the Australian Volunteers Program contributes to continued economic growth and improved stability and security. In 2018-19, Australia will support 31 volunteer assignments in 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. 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 approximately $96 million (in goods and services) in 2018. Tongan goods exports was valued at around $2 million, mostly made up of agricultural produce, including vegetables, fruit and nuts, but also including vehicle parts and accessories and hardware items such as nails, screws, rivets, nuts and bolts. 

Australia's goods exports to Tonga totalled approximately $18 million, with major items including meat, measuring and analysing instruments, and liquefied propane and butane.

Australian exports of services to Tonga totalled $36 million (largely personal travel). Tongan exports of services to Australia totalled $40 million (largely personal travel).  

High level visits

In December 2018, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls Dr Sharman Stone visited Tonga, highlighting the positive work Australia and Tonga are doing to address gender inequality, and emphasising the strength of the bilateral relationship.

In June 2018, then-Defence Minister Payne visited Tonga as part of Indo-Pacific Endeavour 18, handing over five Australian-gifted Unimog vehicles to His Majesty’s Armed Forces and promoting the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

In March 2018, then-Foreign Minister Bishop and then-Minister for International Development and the Pacific Fierravanti-Wells visited Tonga to observe relief and recovery efforts in response to Tropical Cyclone Gita.

In August 2017, Australia’s Environment Ambassador Mr Patrick Suckling visited Tonga to re-emphasise Australia’s support for Tonga in implementing Paris commitments, including through renewable energy infrastructure, climate change science projects and climate finance.

In June 2017, a bipartisan parliamentary delegation visited Tonga to meet with key people and observe issues regarding Australia’s relations with Tonga. The delegation was led by Senator the Hon Ian MacDonald, and included Mr. Milton Dick MP, Mr. Steve Georganas MP, and Senator John Williams.

In June 2017, then-Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Pitt visited Tonga for the signing of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus) by Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and other Pacific island countries.

In September 2016, then-Minister for International Development and the Pacific 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 then-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: 2 January 2019