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The voices in Savai’i and the powers that be

Amidst the debate on the Government’s proposed Judicial reforms, which would have ramifications for the judiciary’s independence as well as the rule of law in Samoa, we can now conclude that the legislative process for the three Bills at the centre of the controversy was botched from the start.

Senior lawyer Salma Hazelman highlighted the flaws in the legislative process for the three Bills:

Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020. According to Ms Hazelman, the legislative process involves 17 steps and the three Bills currently before Parliament are now on step 15, having bypassed the critical phases, including the need for stakeholder consultation.

And as custodians of a thriving democracy, we are all too familiar with stories of legislation in Samoa and around the world that bypass parliamentary processes, and then fail to uphold the rights of the people after enactment.  

It is why the feedback that the Special Parliamentary Committee received in Savai’i from the various villages over two-days of deliberations last week is hardly surprising. Most submissions by the villages to the Committee have opposed the Bills and asked for them to be withdrawn or redrafted.

The Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei, told Samoa Observer in an interview that most submissions received by the Committee have asked that the bills be withdrawn or redrafted and revised if they are to be returned to the Parliament for the third reading.

"Some of the villages that have already met with the Committee through the public consultation have asked for a thorough explanation and clarification of the proposed changes," Tiatia said. 

"As you know these are very sensitive matters and we have conducted the consultations so our people can make submissions and raise their concerns. 

"Most of the opinions and submissions are made against the proposed changes; some villages suggested that we withdraw the bills and some have advised the Committee to review and revise some of the changes to the proposed bills.”

The role of the Bills’ sponsors, to ensure they held public consultations prior to the submitting of the legislations to Parliament, was also highlighted by Tiatia.

According to the Parliament Clerk, the public in Savai’i also raised concerns at the lack of public consultation on the Bills prior to their tabling, compelling him to admit that it was the job of the “relevant Ministry and stakeholders” to undertake that process prior to going to Parliament.

"The relevant Ministry then carries out consultation with people that are likely to be affected by a bill. The relevant Ministry then submit these to the drafters who will then include the submissions from the public into a bill before it goes to Cabinet and onto Parliament,” he said. “That's the normal procedure if the Executive or a Ministry requires changes to the policies, they consult with relevant stakeholders before it goes into Cabinet.”

Tiatia told Samoa Observer last month that the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration (MJCA) is responsible for public consultation on the three Bills.

Close to two months after the Acting Chief Justice, Vui Clarence Nelson and other Supreme Court Judges wrote to the Samoa Law Reform Commission to express concern about the Judicial reforms, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi has been on the defensive and used every opportunity he’s had to ridicule and attack the legislations’ critics.

He has been relentless on his weekly 2AP radio programme – and in various other media forums including the Government-owned Savalii newspaper – in his criticism of opposition to the legislation, despite acknowledgement by the Parliament staff including Tiatia that the MJCA failed to hold public consultations prior to tabling the Bills.

It appears that for Tuilaepa in modern-day Samoa, there is no room for freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas, in order to formulate robust and effective legislation that upon enactment by Parliament works for the benefit of the people.

But all is not lost for democracy in Samoa, if we take a leaf out of the books of the villages in Savai’i, who have stood up and expressed their views without fear of retribution from the powers that be. 

Tevaga Laulu Peseta, a senior chief from the village of Safua Savai'i, told Samoa Observer that the village vehemently opposes the proposed changes, despite the Chairperson of the Special Parliamentary Committee being from Safua.

"Our Member of Parliament (Gatoloaifa'ana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow) is the Chairperson of the Committee and that did not hold us back from saying that we [are strongly] opposed to the changes proposed in these bills,” he said. 

"This is because we know and understand how democracy works and we had to voice our opinions, just because our Member of Parliament is leading the Committee, does not mean we all have to support her and agree to whatever changes proposed. That's not how it should be. 

"They are in office because we voted for them, but that does not mean I should follow and support everything the Government says. If something does not seem right, we speak up and voice our opinion."

Now that is the beauty of democracy in Samoa, where all voices matter, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum and who you support. 

At the end of the day, democracy thrives through a diversity of voices and if everyone is speaking as one voice, the powers that be should step back, acknowledge that unity, and respond appropriately to their wishes.

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