The saga continues but why?
Today one of the most tangled episodes in recent Samoan political history has come to a conclusion but, to use a famous phrase, it seems like only the end of the beginning.
We are left with one lingering question when we appraise the events of the past few weeks: for what was all of that worth?
What has been achieved by the nation’s attention being gripped by the saga of the resignation of Laauli Leuatea Polataivao Schimidt?
The immediate fallout has been confusion and chaos at just about every turn. That seems unlikely to change with Tuesday’s developments.
It is now clear that the weeks of controversy that followed La’auli saying “goodbye” to Parliament; later seeking to retract those words, and the question of whether his resignation needed to be written to be considered official amounted to nothing more than wasted time.
Following the departure of his former Cabinet colleague, the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, moved a motion that in order for the resignation to be official it had to be in writing.
And at the end of a day of drama and division, the Speaker also said he would ask La'auli to submit an official resignation letter.
To complicate matters, La’auli had second thoughts. After meeting with his constituents in Savai’i, he tried to take back what seemed like a declarative statement and said he would instead follow their advice to remain in his seat. The eventual goal was forming a new political party.
There was a school of thought, led by Tuilaepa, that to be regarded as a man of honour, La’auli should have stuck to his words.
“He should carry out the resignation (he announced) when 200,000 people listened to Parliament,” said Tuilaepa.
Crucially, no party has been registered by La’auli yet.
Nor has he joined a new party of his own accord, which under parliamentary standing orders, clearly states that a by-election must be called. Instead, he was forced out of one, ostensibly leaving him free to remain as an independent with no by-election needed.
But it was only last Friday that the Speaker, Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi, said that, contrary to his previous statements, La’auli’s was vacant and that his verbal resignation would be recognised.
It has emerged that the Speaker’s interpretation of the law was plainly incorrect. The constitution makes it clear that resignations are only recognised when they are submitted officially:
“Under article 46, section 2(b) of the Constitution the seat of an M.P. shall become vacant “if the Member resigns his or her seat by writing under his or her hand addressed to the Speaker…”
We believe the Speaker should be asked what, if any, advice he took on the question of accepting La’auli’s resignation and to release it if he did.
If he did not seek any official advice, he should be asked to account for the basis on which he reinterpreted the law of the land.
There is an argument that these issues are meagre, divorced from the concerns of ordinary people and something we should not be paying for.
We could not agree more.
But it should be viewed in context: this chain of events was sparked because La’auli was brought to task by a Parliamentary Committee for mistakenly stating the price and the power of a generator he had imported into the country to use as an example of why a Government generator was overpriced.
In the end, La’auli was validated in the very report in which he was reprimanded and which prompted his resignation and exposed him to jeers and criticism from fellow M.Ps.
La’auli said that there were problems with the price budgeted for a generator at the Tanumalala Prison. The report that followed makes it clear that the generator was undoubtedly over-budgeted for and based on a flawed process
The Ministry of Prisons has admitted as much by retendering for a new generator of a much smaller capacity and much lower price.
The hammer was brought down on a man who was making a legitimate point.
Today was merely another day in a month of political absurdity.
La’auli said on Tuesday he would respect the wishes of his constituents by not tendering a written resignation; but nor would he, for the sake of keeping the peace, challenge the Speaker’s ruling on the by-election.
La’auli said he and his constituents would instead “humble ourselves” and concede to having a by-election.
He said they did not want to continue to pursue the legality over his resignation because it would take up more time.
And so here we are, the better part of a month later, at the much the same point we were when La’auli gave his verbal resignation to Parliament.
And what has been the purpose of the intervening period?
Few characters in this drama have emerged with an improved reputation for consistency, for one.
Samoa’s political system and parliamentary procedure has been shown to be shamefully malleable, too.
But the detour, of course, will have consequences.
The by-election for the Gagaifomauga No. 3 constituency is likely to cost the public tens of thousands of dollars, for one.
And in many ways, the Gagaifomauga No. 3 by-election is going to be a preview of the April general election.
The campaigning we see on the ground from the ruling Human Rights Protection Party and La’auli’s soon-to-be-registered political party will likely be a microcosm of what we see at a national level, especially in a general election in which Savai’i is likely to have an outsized influence.
The build-up and staging of the election is only likely to ensure that politics continues to loom large over life in Samoa at the moment and to the exclusion of other issues.
In other words, the saga continues.