Tongan Culture

Tongans in Australia

Tonga was first listed in the census under the name ‘The Friendly Islands' as a place of birth, bestowed by Captain James Cook due to the friendly reception he received on his first visit to the islands in 1773. The Tonga-born population in Australia has remained low up until recent decades. In the mid-1970s, New Zealand ended its contract-worker scheme, which resulted in many Tongans seeking employment in nearby Australia. Other Tongan migrants since the 1970s came directly to Australia to study, work or join family members already in the country. Family migration and unification continues to be a standard feature of Tongan settlement in Australia, which was further facilitated by the establishment of an Australian visa office in Tonga in the mid-1990s.


The 2016 census recorded that approximately 82.3% of Tongans speak the Tongan language at home. The majority identified with Christianity, more specifically the Uniting Church (26.5%), the Catholic Church (23.1%), the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-day Saints (11.7%) and Other Protestant (10.2%). Of those Tonga-born who are in the workforce, many are employed as labourers (23%), machine operators or drivers (22%) and community and personal service workers (16%). The Tongan community is supported by religious and cultural organisations around the country as well as Pacific Island cultural groups.


According to the 2016 census, there are 9,963 Tonga-born in Australia. However, Tongans have accounted for nearly 60% of participants in Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme (SPW) since 2012.1 In turn, many seasonal workers may not be captured in the census data. Most Tongan seasonal workers are men (88%), leaving behind their families to work in rural parts of Australia to support their family back home. Indeed, Australia is one of Tonga’s largest sources of , thus sustaining links between Tongans at home and abroad. There are also some Tongans in Australia as scholarship recipients, undertaking tertiary-level education.


Some Tongans have reported that living in Australia presents a cultural challenge, as Polynesian identity is not as widely celebrated in Australia. For instance, Tongans who come to Australia through New Zealand have noticed a greater emphasis on learning and continuing Tongan culture and language in the latter. Tongan children in New Zealand may participate in cultural and language classes to help maintain Tongan traditions.


1Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2018.

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