Independence, freedom from political affiliations in Samoa a very slippery slope
A week ago, Member of Parliament for Lotofaga, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, raised a critically important point for Samoa. Speaking during an urgent session to discuss the Electoral Act 2019 in Parliament, Fiame called for the Office of the Electoral Commission (O.E.C.) to be independent, and not to be influenced by political parties.
Fiame did not elaborate on what she was referring to in terms of political affiliation. But coming from such a seasoned politician who has been in there and done it all with the H.R.P.P., including being a Minister for the Office of the Electoral Commission, she obviously knows something many of us don’t. Which is why her concerns should not be easily dismissed, especially with the General Elections around the corner.
“Mr. Speaker, it appears from the dialogue that just because we are Members of the Legislative Assembly, it seems that we make legislation that protects those in Parliament, or others that support different political parties and that,” Fiame said. “Honourable Speaker, this is why I believe it is important for the Office of the Electoral Commissioner to be independent because it is different from our circle of people that deal with legislation and politics.
Fiame went on to say that Parliament must ensure the independence of the Electoral Office to guarantee there is equality the elections and the electoral laws, to avoid bias and discrimination against others.
Again, without getting into the details, Fiame has a legitimate point. Elections should be fair and free from corruption or any other influence – including pressure from political parties. In Samoa today, it is undeniable that the electoral laws, including the ones recently passed in Parliament, and are still being disputed in Court, are heavily political. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know they heavily favour the ruling Government, which is natural when it comes to these things.
Which is why the issue is complex. It is why the question about the independence of the Office of the Electoral Commission is one of those debates we might never see an end to it. On paper, there is no doubt that the office is supposed to be independent, just like the Office of the Attorney General, Ombudsman, Public Service Commission and a few others.
Which is precisely the point the Electoral Commissioner, Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, makes in response to his former Minister. Faimalo argued that his office has "always" been independent in executing its core functions of registering voters, managing and administering elections advising Cabinet, through the Honourable Minister, of issues relating to elections.
Said the Commissioner: "This status was further elevated when Cabinet approved the Electoral Commission Bill 2019, which was later passed by Parliament in Act, to give this Office the full autonomous status.
"Our role is to ensure that the electoral process is free, fair and inclusive. Who wins or who loses the elections is completely up to the voters when they get to have their say through their vote."
We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the Electoral Commissioner’s position. Deep down inside, we can sense his keenness to do their job and do it well. Which is great to see.
But intentions and actions are two completely different kettles of fish. Like the Office of the Attorney General and other public bodies that are supposed to be independent, we find it very difficult to agree given the signs we are seeing before us. The reality is that while their mandates on paper tells us that these public offices should be independent, we cannot say the same thing about the performance of their roles and functions.
All you have to do is examine the changes being made to a number of laws discussed in the not too distant past to know that. The Electoral Act 2019, which has again been subjected to another legal challenge before the Supreme Court, is a classic example. How the Government was able to sneak in some typically H.R.P.P.-motivated amendments to plug gaps in the party, in a law the Court found “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional”, speaks directly to how the Government influences these offices.
Then there is the amendment that removes Parliament’s role from the redrawing of electoral boundaries, instead giving Cabinet the power to change electoral constituencies. How? Apparently, they are now able to do this through a consequential amendment, which lets Cabinet use regulations to change an electoral constituency's make up.
“Regulations are made by the Head of State on the recommendation of Cabinet, they don’t come to Parliament. Parliament does not debate on those,” senior lawyer Fuimaono Sarona Ponifasio explained. “Now the change put in as a consequential amendment says the electoral constituencies may be changed by regulations, by inserting a village or sub village, or removing a village or sub village. Parliament may never know about these changes, or us the public. And that is quite critical.”
We can go on but these are just some of the examples of how the Government influences the decision-making of these offices that are supposed to be independent, which validates everything Fiame talked about last Tuesday.
Interestingly, in the Sunday Samoan, a story titled “P.M. challenges Fiame on independence of Electoral Office” was published. He has apparently asked his former deputy to “explain exactly what independence” means in reference to the Electoral Commissioner.
We don’t know what Fiame is going to do and whether she would take the bait. Probably not. But the more the Government tries to justify the independence of these offices, contrary to the overwhelming evidence before us about the contradictory nature of their claims, the more ridiculous and hypocritical they sound. But that’s one viewpoint. What about you, what do you think?