The Regulator, changing the law and that letter from the Prime Minister
In 2006, the Government established the Office of the Regulator under the Telecommunications Act 2005. Its mission was quite simple. It was to provide regulatory services for the telecommunications sector, which at the time was undergoing a lot of changes.
It was a timely and a much-needed move. With the Government opening up the telecommunications market to allow different international companies to compete in services offered in Samoa, there was certainly a need for a referee so to speak, an independent one too. The decision was immediately embraced by players in the telecommunication sector, who were looking for fairness and equality.
But the roles of the Office of the Regulator soon evolved and were expanded to include broadcasting, postal services and electricity 2010. Under the leadership of non-Samoan Regulators, the addition of responsibilities was seen as the Government’s growing faith in the ability of the office to do its job and take on more responsibilities.
But there was a problem. With the Regulator being one of the highest paid jobs in the public service, one of the biggest criticisms at the time was about the position being occupied by foreigners. It was questioned in Parliament many times and even critics of the Government outside Parliament asked if a Samoan was not qualified enough to handle the role.
In October 2015, the Government appointed Lefaoali’i Unutoa Auelua-Fonoti to the position of the Regulator, becoming the first Samoan to do so. With such an influential position, things appeared to have been quite smooth until recently when a piece of legislation popped up in Parliament. Titled the Telecommunications Amendment Bill 2019, it amended the Telecommunications Act 2005 so that the powers, responsibilities and functions of the Regulator are now subjected to the approval of Cabinet or the Minister responsible.
The question is; what happened? Why has this become necessary? After all these years, why the sudden change? Member of Parliament for Salega, Olo Fiti Vaai, had similar questions when the matter was raised in the House.
“How can the Regulator report to the Minister when he is working together with service providers and M.C.I.T?” Olo asked. “How does the Minister make decision for the Regulator when he is also making decision for service providers?”
Olo went on to warn that the Minister would end up controlling the Regulator.
“He (the Minister) will say don’t do what you want but do what I’m telling you.”
Olo also questioned Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, accusing him of taking power away from the Regulator. He wondered why this was not done when the office was under the guidance of non-Samoan Regulators.
“But now that we have a Samoan [as the Regulator] it seems easy to just take it away [her powers],”Olo said.
But Prime Minister Tuilaepa disagreed, rubbishing Olo’s claim. According to the Prime Minister, when the Office of the Regulator was established there were no complications. But the conflict arising from the digital T.V. platform made the change necessary, he said. So what is Prime Minister Tuilaepa talking about? What conflict is he referring to here?
Well all we can remember is a story titled "Listen and obey, P.M. tells Regulator,” published last year where Tuilaepa censured Lefaoali’i. The Prime Minister was clearly unhappy with the Regulator’s handling of the complaints from the local TV stations about the monthly tariff they had been asked to pay to use the Digital TV platform. So he decided to write to her. Here’s what he said:
“I have seen your press release. In the meeting we had (which the Regulator did not attend), I had instructed you all to talk again. To me, the margin of profit for the Digital TV is high.”
Tuilaepa told the Regulator “you do not understand the issues I am raising.”
“What I meant in my instructions is that you are to report back to me before any decision is made. But for you to issue a press statement where you attempt to interpret my thoughts shows that you think you know everything (smart alec). It is good to be wise but it is not good when you think you know everything. Listen and obey.”
Well that was last year. Is it a coincident then that after such a strongly worded letter that the law has suddenly been changed so that Cabinet now basically controls the Regulator?
Interestingly, when Lefaoali’i was asked for her thoughts this week, she said checks and balances ensure good governance.
“As one saying goes ‘one reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up, instead of what they have to gain’,” Lefaoali’i said. “And if the Executive have found it fit that it is necessary - then I welcome the opportunity to exercise accountability and transparency without reserve.”
Well Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his Cabinet would welcome Leafaoali’i’s attitude. It’s exactly what they would have expected. Besides, it’s not as if she is going to rock the boat now?
If anything, what has transpired in relation to the Regulator this week should be a warning to all public servants, especially the ones who like to push the boundaries.
Cabinet’s regulation of the Regulator’s powers and responsibilities speaks volumes about just how powerful this Government has become what they care capable of whenever, wherever, however. What do you think?
Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless!