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 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.”
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
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.
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
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, 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.”
Louise Waterhouse, who is the consulate-general of the Kingdom of Tonga, daughter of long-serving honorary diplomat with Tonga William Waterhouse and sister-in-law of Gai Waterhouse, was also in attendance.
Mr Layt’s appointment is the first time an Australian has held a Chief Attendant role with the Tongan Royal Family, and only the third time an outsider has been given a chiefly title.
Minister for the Pacific Pat Conroy said the installation was a good development for Australia’s relationship with the island nation.
“It symbolises the deep linkage between Australia and Tonga as members of the Pacific family,” the Minister said.
“It can only deepen our relationship … which is critical to advancing the prosperity of everyone in our region in this very uncertain strategic time.”