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Sunday closures more contempt for democratic process

The rate of change to the state of emergency measures brought in for the coronavirus boggles the mind.

And the nature of the changes being brought makes the motives behind them either like bureaucratic lunacy or the exercise of power for the sake of it; safety seems to at best a secondary concern. 

Since late March, when the need for the Government to take precautionary action was first apparent, there have been a total of 16 amended orders issues.

In a little more than three months, the lengths of those orders has expanded three times.

What began as an 800-word document of sensible precautions has since expanded into a 2400 word essay, some of the contents of which seem to bear little relation to these original intentions. 

The private sector is having trouble making sense of these Government edicts, let alone keeping up with them to ensure they are on the right side of the law. 

Restaurants, which until weeks ago, were open to consumers for dinner on Sundays, have suddenly closed their doors. 

Theories about the coronavirus and its transmission have been floated since the pandemic first emerged from China in December, by fine scientific minds and conspiracists alike.

But none has advanced the theory that virus particles are respecters of the Sabbath; that restaurants that are free to operate six days of the week are somehow exposing their customers to greater harm by opening on the seventh. 

A move to ban swimming is similarly perplexing. And it extends even to hotel guests making use of private pools. 

Weeks after the first state of emergency orders were passed, the Government changed regulations empowering the legal status of the Cabinet. 

They were empowered to make regulations, rules and orders so long that they maintained the “safety, best interests and the welfare of the country.”

Three months on when we look back on these changes, do they pass the Government's own test?

Samoa is one of just 12 states to remain free of the COVID-19 virus, a status it maintains to this day.

Some laws, including restrictions on street vending, church services and the permanent closure of restaurants, have been rescinded. 

But those that remain on our citizens seem to be completely out of proportion with the danger that they face from the virus. 

Restrictions imposed on our countries have never been put in place by countries faced with hundreds of cases, despite their eventual success in conquering the virus’ spread. 

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi,  has given a largely confusing justification for the changes to activities on Sunday and trading.

He said last week that “devilish” practices that had taken root in other countries, making reference to legalised prostitution and abortion.

Tuilaepa confirmed that rolling back Sunday trading was part of his permanent plans to change the face of Samoan society, in the name of returning to Christian tradition. 

“Let us go back to keeping the commandments from God. There are rights that we should adhere to but there are also rights that are questionable in my mind that are not relevant to God’s commandments,” Tuilaepa said. 

Commercial organisations have argued that these changes have the potential to ruin businesses which are already teetering under the strain of COVID-19.

The Prime Minister has said he will ask for the Attorney-General to draft legislation that would make the end of Sunday trading permanent. 

But if Tuilaepa believes that this nation has drifted too far from its Christian moorings then he is entitled to his view.

But this is a subject that should be subject to the regular debate and scrutiny that we expect in a democratic society.

As we know, the Attorney-General is formally obliged to consult with people affected by legislation as part of the process of drafting it. 

This must come before the bill is even tabled before Parliament in its first-reading speech; a process that was not followed in by the high-profile Land and Titles Court bills before Parliament until outrage was raised.

It raises questions about how many other bills are passing through without the mandated consultation. With only a rump for an opposition in Parliament it is difficult to know. 

But democracy is about more than the formal process required to draft legislation. It is the spirit of a national conversation about an issue of major changes, one that gives the average citizen the chance to voice - or at least be advised of - country-shaping reform. 

What is objectionable and, sadly, increasingly typical, is the undemocratic manner in which the Prime Minister has sought to impose his ideology on this country.

What began as minor and emergency amendments have become a means for the Prime Minister to pursue his ideological conviction while by-passing democratic scrutiny. 

Referring the matter to the Attorney-General even appears to have become an afterthought.

The dominance of the Human Rights Protection Party in Parliament appears to have made Tuilaepa all too familiar with proceeding ahead with his agenda without fear of contradiction, or care of the need for consultation.

Telling the public that measures the Government intends to introduce permanently anyway are being brought in temporarily and for their safety is disingenuous and it shows contempt for voters and democracy alike. 

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