Prime Minister's attacks debasing politics

Civility has now become foreign to political debate in Samoa - and for that people have been left all the poorer.

The recent debate between the former Head of State, His Highness, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, has been a rare and welcome chance to examine the health of the Government’s budget.

That is a question that has legitimately been in the spotlight since the Government’s anaemic first stimulus package announced in March. 

A first-round stimulus package that amounted to less than half that announced this month by the US$32 million announced by Tonga - a country with half of our population and Gross Domestic Product - stoked legitimate concerns about the depth of our resources. 

Tui Atua, as part of an ongoing debate about the aptness of the nation’s constitution and the rightness of mind of its framers, began to make substantial allegations about the health of the nation’s finances.

The former Head of State - himself a political veteran whose claims should be interpreted accordingly - made some very specific allegations against the Government: that its financial position was so poor the Government was forced to take a new stance on taxing the nation’s Church Ministers.

Again, due scrutiny must be applied to both these claims. But they do have the virtue of being disprovable and contributing to debate about how policy in Samoa is formulated. 

They are undoubtedly an exchange of barbs between two old foes and must be treated as such: but they advance democratic debate in Samoa.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the response by the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi.

"Something is happening with my boy (Tui Atua)," Tuilaepa said.

"Perhaps he has read the book 'Mein Kampf', [by] Hitler [which says], fabricate a lie and no matter what they try to correct you, remain adamant and keep on doing what you believe in, so that others may believe in the same thing”

This kind of rhetoric demeans us all. And it is all too frequently the first reflex of the Prime Minister, when presented with criticism of his administration.

The Office of the Prime Minister of Samoa is a noble and proud institution. We were, of course, the first nation in the Pacific to emerge confident and independent among the community of nation-states nearly 58 years ago.

The Office plays a leading role in framing the tone of democratic debate. For it to influence the national conversation with a tone of pettiness and name-calling is simply cringemaking and damaging to voters.

It is not too much to ask that the Prime Minister conducts himself in a manner that upholds the dignity of an office that is bigger than he is and which will represent this nation well into the future.

In the ensuing debate with his old foe, Tuilaepa showed himself as being more than capable, of responding with a nuanced deconstruction of the former Head of State’s argument.

He argued that the policy that opened the door for foreign capital to enter Samoan borders the – Value Added Goods and Service Tax (V.A.G.S.T.) – was brought in by an administration of which Tui Atua was an integral part.

This is far more damaging and substantial than resorting to making a comparison with Nazi Germany. 

Why Tuilaepa chose to include the Nazi comparison, and what he thought it added to a legitimate point of debate is puzzling, but it also undermines his own argument. 

This is hardly a new phenomenon under Tuilaepa's leadership.

In fact, the readiness with which he results to insulting language and personal attacks, has become such a frequent feature of public discourse, that it has now almost lost all of its impact through overuse.

When the Samoan Law Society, the peak body responsible for representing the legal fraternity in the country, found its highly nuanced critique of proposed changes to the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) responded to again with insults. 

“It appears they (Law Society) have the COVID-19,” Tuilaepa said.

Other opponents have been dismissed as stupid, childish, cheeky or had their physical appearance diminished by the Prime Minister. 

As the longest-serving leader in the region, Tuilaepa at more than 21 years in power, assumes a leadership role not just in the country but the broader Pacific.

Is it too much to expect the leader of the nation to act as a statesman instead of a manner similar to that of a petulant child, who resorts to insulting language every time one of his policy initiatives is criticised?

Statesmen expect and even encourage criticism of their policies. They respond to it by attacking the substance of the arguments raised. They do not use ad hominem attacks. They behave with dignity. 

The Prime Minister may consider these responses as projections of his own strength; the ability to dismiss his enemies with a wave of his hand. 

They are in fact the opposite. The Prime Minister’s choice of words are often witless. 

When compared to the well-crafted political rejoinders of great political leaders in world history - Winston Churchill described opposition leader Clement Atlee as a ‘sheep in sheep’s clothing' - his contributions are simply crude by comparison. They do little for the standing of the Prime Minister's Office in the public eye.

Tuilaepa is merely a custodian of the office he currently holds. By lashing out as he does, he damages its status in Samoan society. This is something that ought to give the Prime Minister pause for thought next time he responds to criticism. 

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