By Andrew Ford, Australia’s High Commissioner to Tonga
Living only 1 km from my office in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, I walk to work regularly. As I walk, I get many waves from people driving past, as I am well known in Nuku’alofa, with its small population of around 30,000.
I walk not just for my health but also to encourage others’ healthy habits. A staggering 99 per cent of Tongans are at risk of developing a non-communicable disease, such as diabetes or heart or lung disease and one of the preventative measures to this is exercise. Last year I signed over Australian funding to support Tonga’s national non-communicable disease strategy, because healthier Tongans will live longer and more productive lives. As one of our close neighbours in the Pacific, it is in Australia’s interests for Tonga to remain stable, secure and prosperous.
My route to work takes me via the sea, where the vast ocean and the nearby islands dotted across the horizon are a visual reminder that Tonga is an isolated country, with around 170 small islands, vulnerable to weather and global events such as climate change.
I usually pass children making their way to school. As it is important for them to have productive options when they leave school, our aid is funding an innovative new program that will match up vocational training with the needs of employers. Some of the young men and women I see may one day apply for Australian scholarships, helping them to study at a university in Australia or other Pacific countries and return to contribute to Tonga’s development, as well as building important personal links with Australia.
While walking I often see police or military vehicles driving by. We help train and equip Tonga’s army and police force to help Tonga avoid becoming a weak spot for transnational crime, drugs or other problems, which could also find their way across to Australia. We also want to equip the police to address violent crime, including domestic violence.
Here the number plates often tell you who is in the car (mine is Aust01!), and I sometimes see a Government Minister or His Majesty (HM01) drive by. An important part of my role is to build networks with people of influence, including Parliamentarians, nobles, church and community leaders, and our home is set up to host events where relationships are forged and deepened. My wife works at home remotely for DFAT, and when she is not battling intermittent internet, she is planning these events. One tricky thing about organising this kind of event is that in Tonga, shop shelves only fill up when a container ship comes in to the port, so we often have to visit five or more shops to find what we need or be creative with what is available.
As I arrive at the High Commission, which consists of 27 people, I greet Australians, Tongans and other nationalities. Together we seek to achieve a healthier and prosperous future for Tonga and maintain the strong relationship between our two countries.
Andrew Ford is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and until recently was Director of the Free Trade Agreement Policy and New Issues Section. Mr Ford has served as Director of areas responsible for Trade Competitiveness, International Economics and Finance, and Trade Policy as well as Security Policy and Operations. He has previously served overseas as Counsellor (Political and Economic) in Kuala Lumpur and First Secretary (Economic) in Seoul.