Brisbane man Sulieni Layt bestowed royal honor as Australia's first talking chief to the King of Tonga

Brisbane man Sulieni Layt bestowed royal honor as Australia’s first talking chief to the King of Tonga

A Brisbane man has become the first-ever Australian to be installed in the Tongan royal palace in a role that will see him speak on behalf of the island nation’s king.

In an Australian-first ceremony, Brisbane broadcaster and dual citizen Sulieni Layt has been appointed to speak for King Tupou VI.

Out of respect, Tongan royalty and nobles do not speak directly with citizens and vice versa. Instead, they speak through appointed representatives.

While there are dozens of speaking chiefs in the South Pacific island nation, Mr Layt is just the third non-Indigenous person to be given a role within the palace. The other two are from the United States.

Mr Layt now has the title of His Majesty’s Chief Attendant.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

Mr Layt grew up in Queensland, where his family operated a flying school that won a contract to train pilots for Tonga’s national airline.

This is when his passion for the island nation ignited, and when he learned from the trainee pilots what would soon be his second language.

“They were always speaking in Tongan and I always wanted to know what they were saying,” Mr Layt said.

“So spending more time with them, I picked up more words and started going to the Tongan church with them.”

Tongan king Tupou VI wearing regal dress and his crown walks towards the camera during his coronation
Tongan King Tupou VI at his lavish coronation in 2015.(Wikimedia Commons)

The 41-year-old dual Tongan and Australian citizen went on to become a key broadcaster in the region for more than 30 years, founding the Pasifika TV and Radio service.

“It hasn’t quite dawned on me yet the significance and the magnitude of today’s ceremony,” he said.

“I’ve worked so many years with our Tongan people. They’re my people and I’ve served His Majesty … for so many years and I wish to continue to do so.”

The role will require him to travel to Tonga to meet the King. He will also be required to travel with and speak for him when he visits Australia.

Historic ceremony attended by Royal Princess

Her Royal Highness the Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho with eyes closed.
Her Royal Highness the Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho attended the ceremony.(ABC News: Alfred Beales)

His appointment has added significance as the role is usually hereditary.

Mr Layt will now enjoy the official job title of His Majesty’s Chief Attendant and will be officially known as Lave ‘Iloa Ola going forward.

The elaborate chiefly title royal kava ceremony, held at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens yesterday, was the first ever held in Australia, and the first held outside Tonga in 30 years.

COVID-19 restrictions meant the kava ceremony could not be held on palace grounds. At the Botanic Gardens it attracted an audience from across Brisbane’s Pacific Island diaspora.

Tongan community sit on grass in a park as part of a ceremony.
Pacific Islander families gathered to watch Mr Layt be bestowed the royal honor.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

It involved the ceremonial preparation of kava — a traditional psychoactive drink made from the root of the yoqona plant.

The drink was then presented to the circle, which is usually comprised of the nobles of Tongan clans.

The ceremony was attended by Princess Lātūfuipeka Tukuʻaho in place of King Tupou VI.

A ‘rare and special’ appointment

Sione Maile Molitika stands in a park.
Sione Maile Molitika is president of the Brisbane Tongan Community.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

President of Brisbane’s Tongan Community, Sione Maile Molitika, said it was an honor to be involved in the ceremony in his home city.

“For something to happen in Brisbane as part of our culture and our custom, it’s very important they can see part of who we are,” Mr Molitika said.

Pasemata Vi Taumisila stands in a field with a flower necklace.
Pasemata Vi Taumisila, daughter of the late noble Lord Ve’ehala, described the appointment as rare and special.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

Pasemata Vi Taumisila, the daughter of late noble Lord Ve’ehala and a member of the Tonga Traditional Committee – a branch of the royal palace — said the appointment was significant.

“This special occasion is very rare,” she said.

“They only install the title for special people.”

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