Why checks and balances matter in a functioning Parliamentary democracy
Two opposing views on Samoa’s law-making processes made for some very interesting reading on yesterday’s edition of your newspaper.
The first view was expressed in a story titled “Olo laments bills rushed through one-party state Parliament” published on the front page. The second opinion was made in another story titled “Laws are living documents, Electoral Commissioner says” published on page 5 of the same edition.
Coming at a time where the law-making decisions of this nation has come under intense scrutiny, the opposing views offer us an interesting glimpse into what is happening and how this country has gotten itself into the mess it has with the Government behaving like a spoilt child opting to do whatever it feels like, regardless of the consequences and who pays the price.
Let’s start with the Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, who offered his views on the law-making process after a compromise was reached in the Supreme Court over a challenge against the Electoral Act 2019. Supreme Court Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren said the two parties had come to an agreement for the complainants to withdraw their application and for the Government to amend parts of the Electoral Act 2019.
Without the details of the compromise, the idea that the Government has retreated to redraft a law that was passed only as recently as last year is quite telling. If anything, it widely exposed flaws in the process and how very little thought was given to such a hugely controversial piece of legislation. But the Electoral Commissioner obviously doesn’t share that view.
“How do you test [the law] before it is passed?” he asked. “The only way you will find the true intentions of the law and the true issues relating to the law is when you put it in actual practice.
“Laws are living documents […] they evolve according to the circumstances, to the environment we are in, to the dynamics that we come through as we go along.”
That’s an interesting observation isn’t it? Would it be wrong to say the Government is using people as guinea pigs to test their laws? Why don’t they test it first before they put it through Parliament? We know the passing these laws merely become a matter of formality. Come to think of it, the Electoral Commissioner’s views are quite accurate in terms of how the Government has been behaving over years. The school of thought that laws are “living documents” perhaps explains why the Constitution has been butchered so many times by this administration our forefathers would struggle recognise it if they were alive today.
But you cannot blame the Electoral Commissioner for thinking that way. He is only a small part of the bigger picture in terms of the Government’s administration and political willpower. In some cases, these public servants are merely pawns in a political game played by their political masters who are experts in muddying the waters and creating deception and confusion. What’s another law to distract and divert attention from the real issues?
Which brings us to the second viewpoint offered by the outspoken Member of Parliament for Salega East, Olo Fiti Vaai. Looking at what unfolded in Court, Olo pointed to the absence of a robust debate among Parliamentarians when bills are introduced and the fact that the ruling H.R.P.P has become so powerful the checks and balances which should prevent defective laws from being passed are no longer in place.
“Not only are the bills rushed but this also reflects the kind of legislation from the current government that amends law to the advantage of one or two people,” Olo said. But that’s not all. The Independent M.P. then took aim at Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi's claim that the Government is full of “big fish.”
“These amendments are discussed by the ruling party before it gets to Parliament and this is quite an embarrassment to have the legislation from the 46 H.R.P.P. M.Ps redrafted like this,” Olo said. “Now we know they are only big fish [in size] but there is no meat.”
Well that’s Olo’s view. We don’t necessarily prescribe to his take on the big fishes in the Government but we’d like to think that this is a democratic country where people are free to express their opinions – especially in matters of national interest like the law-making processes in Government and how aspiring politicians enter Parliament.
So what do we make of all this? Well we agree to a certain degree that laws are not set in stone and there are times when changes are necessary. But judging from the recent past, changing laws and amending a sacred document like the Constitution has become far too easy for the Government.
There is a simple explanation for this. In a one-party state Parliament like Samoa; the Government has been armed with the ammunition to make any changes they want wherever, however and whenever. This is a recipe for disaster and we are reaping the results.
There is a reason why checks, balances and a strong opposition in Parliament are critical elements in a functioning democracy. And no one said it better than British Historian, Lord Acton, when he warned, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”