Independent Speaker an ideal Samoa must strive for
In the centuries-old tradition of Westminster politics being the Speaker of Parliament was a job that was only taken on with the utmost reluctance.
In England’s early days of democracy, it was the Speaker’s unfortunate responsibilities that set him apart from other Members of Parliament.
It was his job to communicate the will of the Parliament to the King. If the message was met with disapproval that would often not only cost the Speaker his job - but his head.
To this day, in the British House of Commons Speakers are reluctantly dragged to their chairs to ceremoniously reflect the heavy and solemn duties of that office.
But in Samoa we have a Speaker’s role that has long been drawn down into the partisan politics over which it is meant to preside.
It is a Speaker's job to bring order and control the debates in the assembly; to appoint Parliamentary staff; to police unparliamentary expression, and ensure members conduct themselves in a manner befitting the chamber in which they sit.
Inherent in these responsibilities is a great power to influence the conduct of politics in the country and, indeed, the shape of Samoa.
The Speaker’s job remains an often thankless task.
Opposition M.P.s, in particular, are almost always liable to make claims of unfairness against a speaker who is drawn from Government ranks in his allotment of time to speeches and decisions on parliamentary conduct.
In this sense, criticisms of a Speaker's alleged bias should always be tempered.
But the Speaker has always been intended to be a role that transforms a Member of Parliament and their loyalties, from being tied to a single party to the larger ideal of democracy.
Other Westminster democracies have proud examples of Speakers who have acted against the parties that appointed them when their misconduct merited it.
Britain’s most recent Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, so irritated fellow members of his fellow Conservative party that they sought to bring him down at the next election before his resignation.
Unfortunately, modern Samoan politics has no such history.
More than three decades of uninterrupted rule by the current party of Government has weakened several institutions that should have remained independent. Unfortunately, the Speakership is one of them.
In Samoa’s Legislative Assembly the current Speaker, holding the office for the second time, Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi, is only the latest to fall short of the democratic ideal.
Decisions by the Speaker to frustrate opposition to the Government in Samoa have a long history.
In 2009 the then-Speaker Tolofuaivalelei Falemoe Lei’ataua enforced the primacy of the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) prohibited the formation of any new political parties after a general election had been held.
When a group of rebel Tatua Samoa M.P.s sought to bypass the rulings by registering as independents and not as a political party, he declared their seats vacant.
In his first time in the job Leaupepe revoked the recognition of the Samoa National Democratic Party after its leader, Le Mamea Ropati, resigned.
And in his current term, Leaupepe’s recent conduct has raised questions about the role of his office in our democracy.
Our most recent parliamentary sessions have been prime examples of the way in which the exercise of essentially administrative power by the Speaker can have a significant effect on the tone of politics.
The recent resignation of a former Speaker himself, La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao, from the H.R.P.P., has brought new attention to the Speaker’s role.
As a Speaker, Laauli did not distinguish himself from his predecessors when in terms of independence. But as a newly independent M.P. he is now raising questions about the conduct of the office.
On Monday morning, the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, made a provocative speech mentioning Laauli’s father, and the former H.R.P.P. stalwart, Polataivao Fosi Schmidt.
Tuilaepa used his Ministerial Statement to credit the late Polataivao for building the country’s economic foundation and establishing the status quo over which the H.R.P.P. reins. He then drew what was arguably an inflammatory contrast between father and son, saying that the former had the quality of foresight that his son did not.
That, perhaps understandably, provoked Laauli’s anger.
Laauli rose to his feet to protest the Prime Minister’s use of his Ministerial Statement (a speaking slot to which there is no response provided for) in such a fashion as well as his remarks about his father.
His protests about the Speaker’s conduct were cut off and Laauli was not called upon again to deliver any rebuttal to Tuilaepa’s remarks.
For the duration of Leaupepe’s second term we have seen displays of this sort too often.
In 2019 when the outspoken M.P. was blasted by Tuilaepa for questioning whether that year’s budget was unbalanced, Leaupepe delivered a rebuke that crossed the line from the procedural to the political.
“We should not make comments that make you sound good outside but can hurt those that are working with honesty,” he said at the time.
More recently, in April, it was a near Leaupepe-Tuilaepa double act that helped to shut down the Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, was shut down for raising questions about the Electoral Bill 2020.
At no stage was the Prime Minister pulled up for making a veiled remark that everytime the Government sought to implement reform “the devil acts quickly to break it…”
It is in this context that our suspicions are justifiably heightened about Laauli’s comments that his comments have been deliberately excluded from the Hansard.
Or Leaupepe’s justification that “time and tide waits for no man” when questioned by critics about why a package of three bills that would substantially reshape the nation’s judiciary were tabled before the Legislative Assembly at a time coinciding with the peak of fear about the coronavirus.
The Speaker’s chair is elevated above all others in Parliament. Ideally, his conduct should reflect that position.