Why a Special Parliamentary Committee should and must not promote L.T.C. bills

The role of the Special Parliamentary Committee tasked to review and conduct public consultations on the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Court Bill 2020 and Judicature Bill 2020, continues to come under scrutiny.

Last week, it emerged that the Committee as part of its work is handing out an information paper, which apparently promotes what the Government sees as selling points for the controversial bills that have divided opinions across the country.

As if that wasn’t questionable enough, the Committee’s decision to hand out money under the guise of pasese (fares) and passed off as Samoan cultural protocols to village delegations raised even more eyebrows.

From our standpoint, the pasese is debatable. Ethics should clearly disallow the practice given the sensitivity of the matters being discussed. But we can also understand the difficulty and the challenges posed on the cultural level when Members of Parliament meet with village delegations, many of them having travelled from afar to present their views. It becomes even more complex when a Parliamentary Committee is afforded an ava ceremony in the traditional village setting.

But these are just some of the sensitivities and challenges, which form the basis and the relevancy of questions around whether a Parliamentary Committee should be seen to be trying to promote bills being driven by the Government.

All you have to do is read the comments from the Committee’s Chairperson, Gatoloaifaana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow, to see the red flags.

"When we went to Savai’i, there were villages that expressed opposition due to some statements which have been made by those who went there before us,” she said. “But with the rest of the villages, after the Parliamentary Committee had explained where these bills came from and how they came about, they understood and gave their support."

Is it ethical to have a Parliamentary Committee sell the bills? Is it even legal?

These are legitimate and relevant questions. As part of Parliamentary processes and procedures, when it comes to new laws and amendments to existing laws, the role of Parliament select Committees in reviewing them is critical. This includes the opportunity afforded to members of the public to express concerns and even support for changes being proposed.

But the Parliamentary Committee’s role is clearly defined, they are to hear the views of the public, note them and then present them back to Parliament for a final decision. They should not be seen to be trying to sell changes or be advocates of any law whatsoever. This would be highly inappropriate and unethical. It defeats the purpose of the process.

Let us be reminded here that the Committee in question is not a Government Committee, it is a Legislative Assembly appointed Committee which means it has got to be impartial in its work. This is not just critical in answering the question of ethics; it would encourage a free and frank conversation with members of the public whose views are being sought.

Indeed, the job of explaining changes proposed and motivated by the Government should be that of public servants; in the case of the L.T.C. bills, should be done by Government lawyers. Besides, this process should have happened a long time ago, well before the bills were even tabled in Parliament.

What’s happening today is a classic case of the cart pulling the horse. The second problem here is that the cart is the wrong one because ethics should prohibit a Parliamentary Committee from trying to explain and promote any law proposed by the Government.

The affairs of Parliament should be separated from that of the Government. There is a reason the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary exists. It is there to avoid conflicts of interest. Even more importantly, it exists as a check and balance mechanism to counter abuse and wrong use of Parliamentary privileges and resources to drive a certain agenda, especially by a political group.

Take for example the front page of the Weekend Observer with the story “L.T.C. Committee handouts misleading, says Law Society.” In the story, the President of the Samoa Law Society, Lei'ataualesa Komisi Koria, accused the Parliamentary Select Committee of misleading the public, saying the information from the Committee is an absolute misrepresentation of the proposed changes.

 And then there was the Sunday Samoan with the front-page story titled “Government’s Constitution claim disputed.” Again the President of the Samoa Law Society objected to claims by the Government that there are limited provisions in the Constitution to protect Samoan customs and usage.

The point being disputed is one of the bullet points on the information sheet being promoted in the L.T.C. handouts by the Parliamentary Select Committee.

But the President of the Samoa Law Society said the claim is unfair and doesn’t give the ordinary person an understanding of what is actually in the law. He reaffirmed that from the seven per cent provision highlighted by the Parliament Committee, the Articles are short but are the most powerful sections in the Constitution.

 “You can’t just say there are only seven per cent provisions in the Constitution that reference Samoan culture in it and it’s a problem,” Leiataualesa said. “People are saying it’s not enough because there is only seven per cent that talks about Samoan identity, but I can say even with seven per cent there is enough protection.

 “They’re just being told that seven per cent is not enough, which means that our forefathers only cared seven per cent about our land and matai titles. When in fact if you look at the words in that percentage in our view is more than enough to protect our culture…”

Now don’t take our word for it, we encourage you to read the story where Leiataulesa explains in the Sunday Samoan and tell us what you think.

In the meantime, the term “customs and usage” is an eye-catching phrase that has popped up in this debate.

Whose customs and usage are they talking about here? What is their definition of customs and usage? And if they haven’t defined what customs and usage is, which appears to be the case, don’t you think there is good reason to say that these bills are indeed “defective and “dysfunctional”? Take another look.

Have a great Tuesday Samoa, God bless!






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