M.P.s owe voters, not parties loyalty

This week we have seen the passage into law of new amendments strengthening the hand of political parties in Samoa. Few observers of Samoan politics would have concluded that they needed a helping hand. 

But balancing the will of political parties and individual M.P.s is a defining struggle of Parliaments around the world.

Each political system has a different way of dealing with this tension.

But we believe that changes to the Electoral Act that would forcibly remove an M.P. from Parliament simply for resigning from his party tilts the balance of power far too greatly towards political parties. 

It also goes against the most fundamental of democratic principles: that a Member of Parliament is loyal, above all, to those who voted him into office and whom he swore to represent.

In this respect we agree with the election candidate Papali'i Panoa Moala who said: “They (parties) are really, really controlling now”.

Papali'i suggested that the crackdown was targeted at M.P.s. such as the former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’aafa, who resigned this month over a disagreement on policy.

Whatever its motivations, this amendment is bad policy. It goes too far in centralising power in the hands of party leaders, which, over the period of a Parliamentary term of five years, can lead to warped outcomes.

Changing the degree to which political parties exercise control over their members in the Parliament has an immense influence on the character of a democracy. 

And this amendment will change Samoa’s too, by relegating members' own consciences, which is nothing to aspire to. 

In some democracies, such as the United States, party loyalty has oftentimes been weak. 

Votes can be hugely unpredictable as congressmen switch sides on a regular basis. This lends American democracy an unpredictable quality.

It makes America one the least stage-managed democracies in the world. Every issue has the potential to pass if the campaign behind it is good enough.

In others, such as Australia, party loyalty is extremely strong. Unless one of the two major parties does not hold in its own right a majority in Parliament, votes almost always go as planned.

But not always. 

It is accepted that politicians in that country can cross the floor when their conscience of their constituents compel them to do so and there is no shame seen in that. 

One future Deputy Prime Minister of Australia crossed the floor a total of 28 times before he was elevated to that high office.

Similarly, an American voter who was found to have regularly put the interests of his party above those of his constituents would find himself out of a job at the earliest opportunity.

And in the United Kingdom, just this week, the ruling Conservative party made its latest concession to its marquee policy, the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, because of the actions of rebel M.P.s.

This week that the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister was forced to bow to dozens of rebellious MPs on the same issue and dump a key component of the party’s policy. Last year some were even drummed out of the policy. 

It’s clear that most every democracy in the world is a mix; some in which M.P.s are more loyal to their parties; and those in which they are more loyal to their constituents or consciences.

But to be too one sided about this balancing act carries risks. It removes a pressure valve from democracy and makes it less likely - or means that it will take longer - before M.P.s stand up to a domineering leader. That can only have a downside. 

New Zealand is one such example. There was a proliferation of M.P.s leaving their parties to form new ones.

That led to what was known as the waka (or canoe) jumping act to prevent M.P.s. from leaving their parties in response to a proliferation of new party formation that threatened to destabilise the Parliament.

That legislation, while questionable, was clearly designed to solve a problem. 

Party loyalty has its uses. Without its stable Government and the passage of reform would not be possible. 

But the reforms that were passed on Tuesday do not seem motivated to improve the quality of democracy. They seem to be self-interested rather than motivated by what is best for democracy. 

We support the view advanced by Professor Andrew Geddis from the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago, who said Samoa’s amendments do not seem like much more than an attempt to stifle dissent. 

“This sounds like it is an attempt to stifle or prevent individual M.P.s from dissenting or showing their upset with the party hierarchy,” the Professor said. 

“It sounds like the Prime Minister’s response is to try and cover over those problems by saying if you find yourself so upset about what I am doing I am going to impose this very heavy personal cost on you which is that you will lose your seat in Parliament if you disagree with me.”

Indeed, these legal changes must be viewed in the dynamics of the Parliament that produced.

Where New Zealand was suffering from an excess of newly and hastily formed political parties, Samoa is, notwithstanding the election of a member from Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi, essentially a one-party state. 

This can only be viewed as an exercise in seeking to control not just politics - but the conscience and loyalty of Parliamentarians. 


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