La'auli's letter a sorry episode for democracy

It may seem like a great irony for a newspaper to protest against the release of important documents of state. 

But there is releasing information - often characterised as leaking - in full and for the purposes of informing the public.

Then there is releasing information selectively in order to draw a public towards its conclusion.

As journalists, we make information publicly. The Samoa Observer makes a habit of appending to its stories in full, the source of the official information on which it is based, lest anyone accuse us of presenting a document selectively and so that we may allow readers to read and form their own conclusions.

The partial release of information can prove much more dangerous than not releasing it at all.

We refer, of course, to the ongoing saga relating to the resignation of former Cabinet Minister and Speaker of Parliament, La'aulialemalietoa Leuatea Schmidt.

The M.P. issued a verbal resignation to Parliament. Famously, he later reneged. 

At the time, the Speaker of Parliament, Leaupepe Fa’afisi Toleafoa, insisted a formal, written resignation be presented in order to make the M.P.’s official.

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, similarly insisted. 

The constitution made clear that both men were right in their initial interpretation:

“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…”

La’auli said that he had written to the Speaker but only to inform him of his plans to remain in Parliament with a view to eventually forming the party.

That was enough for the rebel M.P. to be certain that he would be remaining in Parliament.

But when the Speaker announced that his seat of Gagaifomauga No.3 was to be declared vacant, he would “humbled” himself and vacate his seat and contest the by-election anyway despite disputing that he ever wrote to the Speaker announcing his intention to do so, as the constitution obliges. 

Then the Prime Minister, seemingly enjoying the drama unfolding his enemy, decided to read aloud on his weekly television programme a copy of what he said was a resignation letter from his former party colleague. 

Contrary to statements by La’auli that his letter to the Speaker signalled his intention to stay in Parliament, the Prime Minister read from a letter which he said indicated his intentions to leave Parliament. 

How and why the Prime Minister was able to obtain a copy of a letter which was addressed to the Speaker and La’auli’s electorate alone which was used to try to score a point against a political opponent remains a troubling and unsolved question. 

The complicated drama of La’auli’s resignation from Parliament and the behaviour of a parliamentary committee leading up to it, has not been favourable to the reputations of our political class. 

Arguably it was particularly perplexing behaviour on the part of the Prime Minister to have spoken about the letter as a definitive resignation when a leaked copy shows it was no such thing. 

“My constituency has since instructed me not to submit a written resignation because of their wish for me not to resign,” La’auli wrote. 

(A leaked and translated copy of La’auli’s letter is reprinted verbatim overleaf allowing you to read the letter and decide for yourself whether it is a resignation or not). 

But the very fact that the letter was obtained is concerning. 

If the Speaker, a position intended to be independent of all Members of Parliament - of which the Prime Minister is one (albeit the foremost) - is potentially assisting the conduct of politics that is a serious misuse of that office. 

The Speaker should deny that he passed La’auli’s letter to the Prime Minister, because if he was involved in the leaking of official documents for party-political purposes then he has patently misused his position by leaking private correspondence. We invite him to deny having done so, or, provide a justification for why he thought it was appropriate to act in this way. 

La’auli made clear that he is willing to accept the decision of the Speaker’s to vacate his seat regardless, so the contents of the letter are politically not of consequence.

But they do make some very telling statements about some of the people involved in this fiasco.

For this reason, we are reproducing the letter in full overleaf; you can make your own judgment about whether La’auli was satisfying the constitutional requirement that he make a clear signal that he is officially resigning from Parliament.

Again, the matter is beside the point.

This is a Government that only late last year wanted to criminalise the leaking of information, a crime punishable by up to seven years’ jail.

We do not know what has happened for La’auli’s letter to be leaked. We make no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved. 

But one thing we can be sure of beyond a reasonable doubt: this shabby episode has once again cast Samoan democracy in a poor light. 

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