Parliament, Judiciary, the Executive and power addiction

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Afamasaga M. F. Toleafoa

Just when it seemed like America’s newest sheriff in town, the shoot from the hip Donald Trump was about to ride rough shod over everyone and everything that was decent about America; he rides bang into a wall called the American Constitution. 

First, a District Court judge in Seattle slaps a nationwide hold on Trump’s ban against entry into the United States of citizens and refugees from seven mostly Muslim countries. 

When that was appealed to a Federal appeals court, it too was unanimously voted down by a panel of three judges. And then when Trump with his usual bluster started bad mouthing the judges involved, his own nominee to the US Supreme Court said he found Trump’s criticisms of the judiciary demoralizing and disheartening.

 Making America great and safe again from those Muslim bad hombres had to wait for now, although Trump has vowed he will appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. But one can’t help but marvel at the genius of democracy’s system of checks and balances to deny would be demagogues and power addicts from getting their fixes at the people’s expense. 

The episode brings to mind the recent standoff between our own Parliament and Judiciary. Readers will recall this started with the Prime Minister announcing late last year that he was setting up a Parliamentary Commission of inquiry to investigate the judges of our Lands and Titles Court. The justification we were told were all the people turning up in tears at the Prime Minister’s office when the decisions they had sought from the Court did not go their way. 

The disquieting announcement should have immediately set off alarm bells in our system of government for two reasons that are rooted in our own country’s Constitution. 

First, there is an officially recognized process in place for reviewing decisions of the Land’s and Titles Court.  

Crying to the Prime Minister or anyone else for that matter when court decisions don’t go one’s way is not part of that review process, Secondly, Judicial independence is a fundamental part of democracy and the rule of law and is protected under our Constitution as it is also in democracies such as the USA.

 But as we now have our very own Samoan styled form of democracy, with the Cabinet (the Executive) holding all the levers of power, no such bells of warning were heard, with the exception of the Samoa Observer, the sole remaining voice of dissent in the country.

 After all, it would be manifestly against Samoan culture and highly disrespectful to question authority. 

And besides, there is always the risk of victimization and being left out of the state largess in our patronage based Samoan democracy. 

So the only bells heard were the Christians’ usual call to worship on their very own Sabbath day, the worship day to the Sun, Sunday.  

But it meant the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, as we now know steamed right through the red lights that once marked the constitutional boundaries between Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary, with all the finesse of a collapsing Manu Samoa rolling mall.  

In doing so, it trampled all over the hallowed principles of the separation of powers and judicial independence that give meaning and substance to good governance and the rule of law in democracy.  And so with all the sterile pomp and ceremony of our rubber stamp Parliament today, the Commission received submissions from those who felt the urge to do so.

 We also now know that the President and judges of the Land and Titles Court were also invited to explain themselves before the Commission, an invitation we are told they politely turned down. 

 In spite of that glaringly big hole, the Commission completed its work and its report was tabled and discussed in our one party state Samoan styled Parliament. And if Trump’s criticisms of the American judges who foiled his divisive ban on Muslims entering the United States were demoralizing and disheartening, what we heard in our Parliament about our Judiciary was a painful and sad travesty of justice itself. 

Relations between these three branches of government; namely Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive are delicate and sensitive at the best of time because of the fine but very important balance that must be kept in their separate but interactive roles.

 Parliament’s primary function is law making while that of the Judiciary is to interpret and apply the laws. 

Both Parliament and the Judiciary also have the all-important function of monitoring the work of the Executive in running the government of the day. Interaction where necessary, is carried out in such a manner that it does not in any way undermine or compromise the independence of any one of them. 

Those principles were no doubt what Trump’s nominee to the US Supreme Court had in mind when he called Trump’s criticisms of the American judges disheartening and discouraging. 

But no such misgivings or concerns were heard when Parliament discussed its own Commission of Inquiry report.  All manner of threats and accusations were made against the judges. 

Either the speakers did not know the law themselves or these were made for public hearing knowing full well the fog that lies thickly over the land on these finer matters of government and the law. 

Populism and fake news are not confined to Trump land.

But the episode should not come as a surprise. Samoa is a one party state in name and in fact. 

Aspiring would-be members of parliament without exception will do anything to join the party of government, the only cargo train that is running in town. The reasons are obvious. 

To start with, one’s chances of being elected are immeasurably improved because voters too want some of what’s on that train.  Then as a first time member of parliament, one is guaranteed a post as minister or assistant minister no less. With such overwhelming electoral appeal, obtaining the necessary number of seats in Parliament to change the Constitution and remove the checks and balances mechanism against authoritarianism is never a problem.

And once you remove those checks, then what you have is authoritarianism itself and abuse of power. 

Former President Bush when speaking about the attacks on the judiciary and the media in America today did well to remind us that power is addictive which is why it needs  to be held in check. 

As a former holder of the most powerful office in the world, he ought to know. 

We too in Samoa ought to know. After all, the signs of power addiction are everywhere to be seen and felt.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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