Consultation process on bills a win for opponents

The slowing down of the legislative process to pass three controversial bills before Parliament has been touted as a win for their opponents.

That's the view of Radio New Zealand Pacific reporter, Dominic Godfrey. 

In an interview on Dateline Pacific, Mr. Godfrey says the Parliamentary Select Committee hearings, and the consultation work set to begin in Savaii, shows Parliament accepts they cannot rush these bills through the process.

Time, and better consultations were among the chief demands of opponents to the bills, including the entire Judiciary of Samoa and the Samoa Law Society.

They say the Land and Titles Bill, Constitution Amendment Bill and Judicature Bill undermine the rule of law, put families before the court at risk of not getting a fair trial and would dissolve the separation of powers in Samoa.

But while the village level consultations are a win, Mr. Godfrey points out they are not yet perfect.

“It is odd that a Parliamentary Select Committee are the ones who are holding village wide consultations. They are essentially representatives of government trying to sell bills of Government rather than a neutral apolitical body,” he told Dateline Pacific.

The three bills were tabled in Parliament in March, immediately before the nation went into lockdown to prevent the arrival and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.

Three months later, the 90-day period required between the second and third readings of any amendment to the Constitution has lapsed, but the third and final stage has not been scheduled.

President of the Samoa Law Society Leiataualesa Komisi Koria told Radio New Zealand this shows Parliament is being more “circumspect” with their approach to the bills.

Meanwhile the Society has been approached by civil society, private citizens, businesses and village councils to help explain the substance and implications of the bills.

“This is incredibly fast-moving legislation which impacts the Constitution and the judiciary of Samoa,” Mr. Godfrey said.

“People are finding out about it far too slowly at the outset. They really only found out about it because of media coverage and this select committee consultation which is starting out, they are having to work really hard for information.”

Outside of Samoa the bills have encountered harsh criticism. The Law Societies of the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand have written in opposition to their passing, and the International Bar Association Institute of Human Rights warned the legislation could see Samoa being ousted from the Commonwealth.

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego Garcia-Sayan warned Samoa to withdraw all three bills.

In an open letter to the Government, Mr. Garcia-Sayan wrote that the bills would fall short of international standards of the independence of judiciary, and the separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature and government (or executive).

In particular, the letter criticised how proposed changes in the bills would threaten the right to a fair trial by severing the Land and Titles Court from the supervision of the Supreme Court and changing how judges on that court are appointed and dismissed.

“Even assuming that the independence and impartiality of the members of the Judicial Services Commission is not undermined by actual interference from the executive branch, their perceived independence and impartiality would be irremediably compromised,” Mr. Garcia-Sayan said.

He reminded Samoa of its commitments to international legal treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Samoa joined in 2008.

Radio New Zealand’s Mr. Godfrey said in and amongst the controversy surrounding the three bills, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi has shown himself to be ready to interfere in village politics in defence of the bills.

He reprimanded Member of Parliament Faumuina Wayne Fong for telling his constituency he did not support the bills, and told him to resign in mid-May.

And in June, he had longstanding Human Rights Protection Party member and Former Speaker Laaulialemalietoa Leuatea Polotaivao resign from the party for the same reason.

In the defence of his bills, Tuilaepa has also lashed out against Deputy Prime Minister Fiame  Naomi Mata’afa during a Parliament session, and Former Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi in a back and forth spat taking place via individual press conferences.

“The Prime Minister is starting to involve himself in the intricacies of village politics, not a good look,” Mr. Godfrey said.

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