FEATURE: The king and I
Australia Network's Pacific correspondent fondly recalls a dinner date with royalty 16 years ago on Tonga's main island, and a meeting with a (then) crown prince who was ahead of his time in - among other things - his grasp of the possibilities of emerging communications technologies.
Back in 1996, I began a weekly column I wrote for Papua New Guinea's English-language newspaper, 'The Independent', with the following tongue-in-cheek boast:
"The Crown Prince of Tonga, His Royal Highness Prince Tupouto'a, had me over to dinner at his place the other night. Nice little place, the Royal Villa. It's brand new, palatial, cost a whispered 3 million Tongan Pa'anga (over $A1 million) and stands at the end of an 800-metre driveway, grandly positioned on the top of what much be the highest ground on the island of Tongtapu, Tonga's main island.
"I have to confess I was not the Crown Prince's only guest. There were about 93 of us - all delegates to the Pacific Islands News Association's annual conference."
In actual fact, the then Crown Prince, now the late King George Tupou V, did invite me and several others to sit at his table. That was thanks to my great colleague, Robert Keith-Reid, publisher of the Fiji-based 'Islands Business', who was a personal friend of Tupouto'a.
Robert had a wicked sense of humour - fortunately matched by his royal friend.
As we stood in the marble-columned foyer of the Royal Villa sipping wine, Robert asked Crown Prince Tupouto'a: "How much longer do you think your father's subjects will continue to put up with such an ostentatious display of wealth?"
I almost choked.
"The Crown Prince laughed good-naturedly at Robert's question about possible subject anger at his palatial lifestyle and a few minutes later," I wrote in my column, he guided "us into his luxurious private dining room."
Crown Prince Tupouto'a became King George Tupou V 10 years later in 2006, on the death of his father, who had reigned for more than 40 years. His reign lasted just six years. King George Tupou V died in Hong Kong at the weekend, aged 63. He had cancer and had not been well for some time.
In that short six years, he brought profound change to Tonga - moving it to being a far more democratic state. He surrendered significant power to the parliament and announced that in matters of state he would henceforth rely on the advice of the elected prime minister.
In the 2010 elections, a majority of the members (17 out of 26) were for the first time elected by the people. Prior to that the "commoners" were allowed to vote for only nine MPs out of the 30 who sat in the old parliament. Twelve were appointed directly by the king, who also chose the prime minister.
The common factor between the old and the new parliaments is that there remain nine noble MPs. These nine are elected by the holders of Tonga's noble titles.
The king was a bachelor and so the next king will be his younger brother, Crown Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, who is at present the Tongan high commissioner in Canberra.
Much has been written about the eccentricities of King George Tupou V.
But my memory of him is of an incredibly intelligent man, a voracious collector of interesting objects and an absolute devotee of technological change.
Back in 1996, in his address to the Pacific Islands News Association conference in Tonga, he spoke about the possibilities for the media in the Pacific of what we now call broadband.
"Perhaps technology will offer the journalist the new lease of life he most needs," he said. "In the past few years I feel that several developments have come to the fore which should be very significant in the journalists' world." He spoke about the AT&T Corporation developing "a very fast modem that could transfer digital data at 1.0048 MB a second on a single copper wire simultaneously with voice telephony without interfering with the telephone signal."
"This, I feel," the then Crown Prince told us, "is particularly significant for the Pacific Islands press, who lacking viabilities of scale tend to oscillate between viability and a hard place. For the first time, because the customer pays for his newspaper when he dials it up on cyber-space, small newspapers will be free from being at the mercy of the advertisers."
Sixteen years ago, this was thinking far in advance of almost anyone else in the Pacific at the time.
But his best line from the speech was when he came to talk about how he would deal with journalists who upset him in the new cyber age.
"The public can hardly lynch the Editor any more! . . . But all is not lost," he went on. "Because with cyber-space comes cyber-vengeance. If I see an article which particularly offends me on cyber-space, I know that as a member of the public I am free to download 2,000 copies of 'War and Peace' directly to the e-mail address of the offending editor."
The passing of King George Tupou V is a great loss to the Pacific.