Restrictions damaging; Cabinet acts like "theologians": Fiame

Former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa has spoken out against the state of emergency restrictions’ economic impact and accused the Cabinet of acting as “theologians” instead of in the national interest. 

In an interview with the Samoa Observer, the Member of Parliament for Lotofaga said she thinks the Cabinet has been holding discussions more like “theologians” than Members of Parliament and that it makes her uncomfortable. 

“I am a Christian but I certainly have a level of discomfort when faith is brought in as a political factor,” she said.

“You would think you weren’t sitting at a Cabinet table, but at a table of theologians.

“I have to say that I am very uncomfortable in Parliament because members always quote from the Bible.”

One discussion around the Cabinet table revolved around gratitude to God, she disclosed.

“It was sort of like we are doing this because God has saved Samoa from [COVID-19], so we should show our appreciation and keep the Sabbath sacred," she said. 

“My response to that is, is this the only time God has saved Samoa? Did we not know that God looks after Samoa before [COVID-19]?”

Referencing American Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who earlier this year said religious conservatives were using faith to justify bigotry and discrimination, Fiame said she is uncomfortable with the way religion is being used in Samoan politics. 

Samoa has been under a state of emergency since late March, and despite not registering any positive cases of the virus, maintains fairly strict restrictions on movement, retail and hospitality, and trade.

Among the restrictions is a suite of rules that limit activities on Sundays, including banning all businesses, bar supermarkets and shops, restaurants, and hotels from operating, with limits on their hours of operation. 

Restaurants are not allowed to serve guests on-site and must sell takeaways only.

There are no longer ferry services on Sundays, and it has been made illegal to swim at the beach or in a river with fines already imposed on some people caught for doing so. 

Fiame said she tried to use her position in Cabinet to voice people’s concerns, especially business owners who have been hit hard by the restrictions. 

The global situation will continue to rage outside Samoa, but the country needs to do what it can to keep its economy afloat and allow people to maintain their livelihoods," she said.

“We can keep the borders secure but open up the country as much as possible so that people can begin to work on their livelihoods,” she said.  

“There are things that are within our control, that we can do, and I think it is important we take that approach.” 

Fiame said she is worried that the Government has not sounded the alarm over Samoa’s economic situation, and instead are putting out the message that the country is doing fine.

“You hear around the world that the economies are on a dive but that is not the message that the Government is sending out. They are saying we are okay, which is a bit strange,” she said.

In their most recent public statements, the Ministry of Finance has insisted it has no appetite to increase the national debt and has maintained it can repay its existing loan balance at pre-COVID-19 rates of 11 per cent of gross domestic product.

In June M.O.F. tabled the 2020-2021 national budget of $965 million. Chief Executive Officer Leasiosiofaasisina said the budget is more conservative than originally planned.

“If by 12 months there is still a lockdown and economic activities are still disrupted, then we would have to [borrow] more,” he said at the time.

“The Government wants to proceed with caution because we do not know how long [this will last].”

The Samoa Chamber of Commerce and Industry earlier this year called for greater clarity and better communication from the Government on the state of emergency orders, saying that businesses are struggling to deal with fast-changing regulations. 

That followed the publication of a piece by a senior lawyer, who had asked to remain unnamed, who said emergency orders which do not specifically relate to the protection of Samoa from COVID-19 could be struck down by a Judge. 

That led the President of the Samoa Association Manufacturers and Exporters (S.A.M.E.), Tagaloa Eddie Wilson, who said the restrictions are severely damaging to the country’s business sector to say the lobby group would consider taking action against the Government on the issue. 

“If some of the state of emergency [restrictions have] got no legal basis then our immediate reaction is that the Government should seriously look at this,” he said. 

In a June interview with the state broadcaster 2AP, Tuilaepa made reference to devilish ways which have been legalised in other countries. 

He then made reference to businesses operating on Sundays for profit or making money. 

“We are trying to get us back; for now we are using the orders under the coronavirus state of emergency,” he said.

“Let us go back to keeping the commandments from God. There are rights that we should adhere to but there are also rights that are questionable on my mind that is not relevant to God’s commandments.”

The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet have been approached for comment. 


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