Electoral Inquiry panels self-interested: La'auli

The former Speaker, La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Schmidt, has criticised the Commission of Inquiries convened after every national election as being partisan and proposing self-interested amendments to electoral law.

La’auli said the panels should be independent but are instead made up of unsuccessful candidates who have proposed problematic changes rather than prioritising the best interests of the country. 

La’auli’s main concern is a new change proposed by the most recent Inquiry panel which has made it compulsory for voters to cast their votes within the constituency they have registered in.

Unlike previous elections, voters from Savai’i living in Upolu are able to cast their votes from special booths in the capital of Apia.  

But the former M.P. for Gagaifomauga No. 3 said the changes are making people originally from Savai’i but residing in Upolu feel like they are overseas residents living in Samoa. 

“We can no longer cast our votes from the other side of Apia, a part of Samoa,” La’auli said. 

“We are being treated like we are overseas people that live in Apia but cannot exercise our right to vote from our place of residence unless we go to the constituency where we are originally from. 

“This is no difference from those living overseas and have to pay the airfare to get on the plane until they can vote in Samoa.” 

La’auli then accused the panel members on the Commission of Inquiry who made the recommendations to change the electoral laws. 

“The panel consists of unsuccessful candidates that have proposed these changes that suit them,” he said. 

“That is what is happening with these changes is that after they become unsuccessful in the election they sit on the panel and make changes that best suits them for the next event. 

“It’s not right and the suggestion is to have independent members that have no involvement in the election to preside over the inquiry.” 

A member of the 2016 General Election Commission of Inquiry, the former M.P. for Faleata West, Ale Vena Ale, said that all amendments proposed by the Commission were motivated by the betterment of the people. 

Ale referred all further inquiries to the Chairman of the 2016 Committee, former Deputy Speaker, Agafili Patisela Eteuati, who could not be contacted by the deadline. 

La’auli, who is now heading to a by-election this month, claims that the margin for errors during the existing electoral process were minimal but changes made by the Committee have only created more potential mistakes. 

“For us from Savai’i we are residing in Apia for our children’s education and for work but our hearts are in Savaii where we belong,” he said. 

“But the changes are now suggesting that our children who have every right to cast their votes from where their parents are from [in Savaii] cannot vote there unless they hold matai title from there.

“People will continue to move from place to place, you cannot stop that and this is why these changes are problematic…” 

The 2016 General Election Inquiry was chaired by former Deputy Speaker, Agafili Patisela Eteuati sitting with three other unsuccessful candidates and two other members. 

Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio was asked for a comment about the concerns. 

In response, Faimalo said the Electoral Office does not pick the members for the committees.

But he noted that for the first time the Office was involved directly in the process to provide technical and objective input on the issues raised not only by the members of the Commission but witnesses. 

“Most of the changes around electoral matters are based on discussions between members of the Commission and witnesses,” he added.

Former District Court Judge and former M.P., Lefau Harry Schuster agreed with La’auli’s concerns. 

He said that having independent members sitting on the Commission of Inquiry is the most fair way to go about with proposed changes in the general election. 

“You can’t be a referee and then play at the same time,” Lefau said about members of the Commission who are also candidates for general elections. 

“The problem is you are now setting up rules for the game that you will be playing. That is not right and that shouldn’t even happen.

“We need people who have no affiliation with election to sit on the Commission and proposed amendments that is best for all.”  

La’auli was ousted from Parliament after the Gagaifomauga No. 3 constituency was declared vacant. A by-election for the seat will be held on 28 August. 

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