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Princess Ashika was a done deal before approval sought

Wednesday 18 Nov 2009 5:59p.m.

Princess Ashika was a done deal before approval sought
By Michael Morrah

The watchdog that might have warned the Tongan government against buying the Princess Ashika has told the Royal Commission of Inquiry its master effectively muzzled it and chained it to the kennel.

The purchasing committee said money had already changed hands by the time Cabinet asked it to decide if the ferry would be an asset.

The experience of being on board the Princess Ashika was harrowing for many people – even those who travelled on the ship prior to it sinking.

“I didn’t sleep. I just kept on smoking and inspecting the cargo bay area, just making sure it didn’t rise too high,” says Michel De Wilde, a passenger on the ship during its fourth trip – the last it made before sinking.

He says he saw water flowing through the bow ramp and into the cargo hold.

Mr De Wilde is a free diver by profession, and was so concerned he got his snorkel, mask and flippers ready – thinking the ship may go down.

“I rang my boss and told him, ‘You are never going to get me on that boat again. Full stop’. The water level was rising and it was obvious the bilge pumps could not handle it,” he says.

Along with frightening accounts about the state of the vessel, there was also evidence that proper processes were not followed when the ship was bought.

Documents show a procurement committee – set up to advise the Government on whether it should purchase large assets – was asked for their approval, but only after Cabinet had approved the purchase. A contract to buy the ship had been signed, and a deposit had been paid.

The committee members who gave evidence agreed that it was an exercise in futility and insulting that they were asked for their approval after Cabinet had already supported the Ashika’s purchase.

One of the members told the commission that if proper procedure had been followed, Tonga could have got a better boat.

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