System needed for business and politics to coexist
This month has exposed the uncomfortable coexistence of business and political interests inside Samoan politics.
It has also made clear that for too long now the Government’s attitude towards Members of Parliament with business interests and especially Cabinet Ministers’ has been far too casual for far too long.
The Government has been saying one thing, but its actions speak otherwise.
It was two years ago that the Prime Minister said he expected members of his Cabinet to resign their control of personal businesses once entering the Ministry.
“They have been elected by their respective districts as their representative, and so the businesses should be handed over to the children and families,” Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi said in May 2018.
Less than six months later an investigation by the Samoa Observer revealed how urgently the Prime Minister’s edict had been taken when four Ministers and three Associate Ministers were revealed to continue to have shareholdings and businesses.
The issue has emerged more recently when former Minister and recent defector from the Human Rights Protection Party, La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao, was criticised by the Government for maintaining business interests.
He fired back saying that, unlike some other Ministers, his businesses did not intersect directly with Government decision-making minimising the potential for any conflict-of-interest, real or perceived.
La’auli’s involvement in a nonu company was the stated reason the Prime Minister said he asked him to resign.
But as comments by the Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, printed in Thursday’s edition made clear there is nothing black and white about M.P.s’ and their business interests (“Business shares of M.P. ethical issue: Electoral Commissioner”).
Instead of having the force of law or regulation issues relating to M.P.s and their business interests are instead matters of ethics. Those who are responsible for determining whether an ethical conflict could be seen to arise? The holders of the interests themselves.
The same can be said of the issues of Ministers
The Samoa Observer revealed in April that the Minister of Works, Transport and Infrastructure, Papalii Niko Lee Hang continues to hold shares in a New Zealand lending and financing company.
Time has long since passed for a system of self-regulation to prevail when it comes to Parliamentarians and their businesses.
We make no allegations of impropriety.
But the current system is simply ad hoc and to open to circumvention and loopholes to give us confidence that this nation is being governed in the interests of its voters and no one else. The bar for that is very high.
Realistically the idea that M.P.’s or even businesses divest their families completely from businesses is not going to happen in Samoan politics.
Businesses allow M.P.s to make contributions to their villages, which is an important dimension of their role as representatives.
But there is a big difference between a general business and one that profits mainly from its intersections with Government, such as by being awarded contracts.
It’s clear that the current system that places the onus for disclosure on Ministers themselves is not being observed despite pleas from the Prime Minister.
But where bans and prohibitions may fail to work, we might expect better results from a regime of transparency.
We believe that Members of Parliament, upon entry to the Legislative Assembly should be required to fill out a complete list of their business and financial interests, including those of any dependents.
This should extend to businesses M.P.s own; shareholdings they maintain; outstanding loans they have; and any gifts or otherwise they have received.
Failure to comply with the requirements of disclosure should expose that Member to censure, as should a failure to keep these interest statements up to date.
This would allow for the public and media to apply proper scrutiny to M.P.s’ decision making through the lens of their personal interests.
In public life, perceived conflicts of interests can matter as much as those that result in impropriety.
M.P.s whose business interests are occasionally brought to the centre of public debate or media coverage frequently assure us that they do not interfere with their role as representatives.
We have no reason to doubt them.
They, then, should have no objections to disclosing the extent of their business affairs as part of the price of entry to public life in Samoa.
This would further allow for us to develop a culture of M.P.s recusing themselves on the bases of declaring a conflict of interest in a matter.
Such declarations happen occasionally but a register would make them uniform and allow those who did not recuse themselves from a matter to make their reasons for not doing so accountable.
The Electoral Commissioner is right. M.P. and Ministerial business interests are an ethical issue and a very serious one at that. That means they should be taken seriously.