Samoa's democracy under attack, says former A.G.

Samoa’s democracy is being eroded, former Attorney General and senior lawyer, Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu has said. 

As reports of President Donald Trump's attempt to undermine the election results in the United States of America filter through, Taulapapa, in an opinion piece she wrote for the Sunday Samoan, has turned the microscope on Samoa politics, saying the two are “as if in some strange parallel worlds.”

The former Attorney General said Samoa’s Parliament does not listen to its people and has been “probably neutered by the illegitimate use of Standing Orders to enforce Party loyalty.”

Taualapapa, who is one of Samoa’s foremost legal experts, said the recent decision to remove two Independent Members of Parliament from their seats after they declared they will run for another party in April’s election was a “King Hit” to Samoa’s democracy. 

She described it “either as a stunning example of sheer and unadulterated cowardice, or as a cynical ‘pre-emptive strike’ to remove [two] of the [four] (lonely) independent voices in the parliamentary wilderness.

“All this whilst the ‘Party of One’ is trying to pass bills which represent the most direct and controversial attack on the country’s Constitution, which there has ever been in our 58 year history.”

That controversial attack is the three controversial pieces of legislation to radically alter the court system and the Land and Titles Court, which threaten the courts, the rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

Taualapapa said using Parliamentary Standing Orders to have Members of Parliament Olo Fiti Vaai and Leatinuu Wayne Sooialo vacated from their seats is not legitimate.

“The Parliamentary Standing Orders [have] been gloriously and endlessly corrupted to control and remove the freedom of choice and movement of your validly elected M.P.’s to join other parties, if they or their electorate wish, or to declare independence when the ‘Party of One’ no longer shares or reflects your values and abuses the authority given by the people,” she said.

“These particular Standing Orders (which also dictate the number of M.P.’s before you can be declared the official opposition) have been justified ‘for the stability of Parliament and the country’….which is a hollow and meaningless excuse for such a serious act,  when you already own 45 of the 50 seats in the ‘Mute’ Parliament.”

In September, after Parliament passed last-minute changes to the Electoral Act banning “party-hopping” during Parliamentary terms, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said the move is about stability. 

“If 30 dishonest M.P.s change their party affiliation 20 times during a five-year term, we can have 20 changes of Government in five years creating instability in Government,” he said in a statement distributed by the Government Press Secretariat on Friday 25 September.

“This measure has deprived two electorates of their voice in Parliament at one of the most critical times in our history,” Taualapapa said.

“As if in some strange parallel worlds with Europe and the U.S., we also have a Parliament which is not listening to its people, as it thunders and grinds on to pass defective laws which will bring discord and dysfunction into our midst, by undermining the very institutions which protect us from each other, but most importantly of all, protect us from the abuses and excesses of the Party of One who has held power exclusively in his own hands for too long, and has forgotten the principles and original purpose of why he entered ‘the peoples house’.”

And with Samoa’s own General Election just six months away, the lawyer is clear about what she thinks should be done about this abuse of power.

“Our natural respect for position and status has been extensively exploited by the unscrupulous and the graceless,” she said.

“Unless, and until we remove our authority and our approval of those who have abused our trust as well as public resources, through the ballot box, and encourage and vote for M.P.’s who are honest, ethical and diligent, then we are destined to live in servitude to the whims of the ‘Party of One’ for the rest of our lives.

“The U.S. Election as well as ours, offers people who are free, the ability to choose their leaders.

“May democracy in all its forms, be fully restored to the Independent State of Samoa, so many voices may speak and contribute to how we are governed, so we may express what we require from those who are selected to govern us.”

Since the early days of the U.S. election, President Donald Trump has worked to undermine the democratic electoral process in which every vote placed is counted to ensure the right people are elected to power.

His campaign have filed lawsuits in several states to either stop counting votes, recount votes or have falsely described “fraudulent” votes thrown out.

So far many of these lawsuits have been dismissed by judges, but an appeals court in Philadelphia did order campaign observers to be granted closer physical access to ballot-counting.

Analysts agree the purpose of these lawsuits appears to be to create distrust and confusion among voters.

New York University’s Brennan Centre for Justice Democracy programme director Wendy Weiser told Bloomberg the lawsuits will not affect the election outcome.

“They are manufacturing, both through their lawsuits and other action, a way of riling up supporters to believe this election is being stolen,” she said.

Ohio State University election law programme director Edward Foley said the Trump campaign is: “trying to create a public feeling of confusion and distrust that could feed into a political strategy.”

Taulapapa said that now is a good time to “take stock” of Samoa’s own democracy and offered several ways to check if it is still fit and healthy at the outset of the 2021 General Election campaign season taking off this month.

“Is the Government complying with the law and its own policies and procedures?,” she asked.

“Are the parliamentary representatives we have voted for, able to protect our welfare and wellbeing by advancing our causes (in and out of the house), and are they free to express their views and offer their unique contribution on any subject?

“If one of us is willing and able to seek public office, is the process of doing so fair, independent, and based on merit?

“Do our laws bring benefit and improvement from what came before, or what we have now?

“Are we listening to what people need, or are we listening only to ourselves, and focused only on what we want and what our families and friends need?

“Are our electoral boundaries consistent with our traditional cultural and regional territorial divisions which are recognized in our fa’alupega?”

Taualapapa’s opinion is reprinted below in full:

Democracy – Under Attack in Samoa

Watching the US elections unfold (over the last three days and three nights), on a combination of CNN, live stream on my phone, and through the various ‘on line’ news sites, has been an exhausting, yet fascinating pastime. Its outcome will impact the world, whoever wins.

The sheer numbers involved in that election, (where records are being broken for voter turnout), and the current votes for the two Presidential candidates numbering over 70 million each, across the 50 states (and many territories including our close neighbours and kin in American Samoa), covering nine time zones, has been remarkable, as have the attempts by the incumbent President to undermine the integrity of the votes cast and the electoral processes in critical ‘battleground states’, as well as the apparent success of the vote for change.

Crying ‘Fraud’, ‘Stolen Election’ accompanied by an inflammatory ‘call to war’ by his own children, makes the US President perhaps the most incendiary and unprincipled holder of one of the world’s most powerful position, since Richard Nixon.

Closer to home, the process of electing representatives of the people to govern, and the Conventions which we adopted and localized from the ‘Westminster’ system of government at independence, are part of the fabric which holds this country’s modern society together, which has been integrated with the fa’asamoa and the ways and means by which we live, and express ourselves as heirs of Samoa. We are proud and humble in equal measure, as we live according to certain cultural and ethnic norms, and we have adopted and seek to live by the Christian values of the missionaries who brought ‘light’ to these treasured islands of ours.

Having now seen the US elections in sharp and detailed focus, six months from our own national elections, it is perhaps a good time to take stock and ask ourselves whether we have been good and faithful stewards of our home grown democracy by asking ourselves a few pertinent questions:

Is the Government complying with the law and its own policies and procedures?

Are the parliamentary representatives we have voted for, able to protect our welfare and wellbeing by advancing our causes (in and out of the house), and are they free to express their views and offer their unique contribution on any subject?

If one of us is willing and able to seek public office, is the process of doing so fair, independent, and based on merit?

Do our laws bring benefit and improvement from what came before, or what we have now?

Are we listening to what people need, or are we listening only to ourselves, and focused only on what we want and what our families and friends need?

Are our electoral boundaries consistent with our traditional cultural and regional territorial divisions which are recognized in our fa’alupega?

As if in some strange parallel worlds with Europe and the US, we also have a Parliament which is not listening to its people, as it thunders and grinds on to pass defective laws which will bring discord and dysfunction into our midst, by undermining the very institutions which protect us from each other, but most importantly of all, protect us from the abuses and excesses of the Party of One who has held power exclusively in his own hands for too long, and has forgotten the principles and original purpose of why he entered ‘the peoples house’. 

The sacrosanct work of the Courts, the Independence of the Judiciary, the Rule of law and the Separation of powers are the only remnants left of the much touted ‘Samoan’ style democracy, as the Legislature has been fully muted (and probably neutered) by the illegitimate use of Standing Orders to enforce Party loyalty, above the wishes of the electorates, common sense and honour. 

The Executive has also been carefully but completely disabled,  by sheer force of personality and the fear of stepping out of line, as we watch ‘day in and day out’ on national TV, in the paper, on the radio, the one member of the 13 member Cabinet of Ministers opening, closing, launching, welcoming and receiving across the 30 portfolios held by the other 12 members, all commonly punctuated with a total lack of respect for the host, (often arriving 40 minutes early before the other invited guests have actually arrived, or unfashionably late keeping everyone waiting at his pleasure), and which, after his 10 minute performance (often and rudely only given in one language) is followed by a full blown nap ‘in plain sight’….

We have, as a society, become resigned and almost used to, if not accepting of, the crude, ill-mannered, entitled and uncouth behavior by many of our political leaders, whose most obedient sycophants and partisan public servants, have increasingly adopted the same behaviors, and an attitude of contempt for the very people they have been employed to serve. Reports of the heartless interruption of children singing hymns at a recent event, is simply the latest symptom of a deeper malaise in our political system and in our community which is sickening us all. 

Indeed the final ‘King Hit’ dealt to our democracy was just delivered last week, by a decision to disqualify two sitting members of parliament who had already met all the legal requirements of the Electoral Act as well as the Constitution, were sworn in and  took up their seats representing their electorates 4 1/2 years ago, yet have now been unceremoniously  removed from Parliament, less than 5 months from the General Election, and menacingly only a matter of weeks before the Third Reading of the ‘3 Bills’ at the end of this month, either as a stunning example of sheer and unadulterated cowardice, or as a cynical ‘pre-emptive strike’ to remove 2 of the 4 (lonely) independent voices in the parliamentary wilderness. All this whilst the ‘Party of One’ is trying to pass bills which represent the most direct and controversial attack on the country’s Constitution, which there has ever been in our 58 year history.

Their terrible and egregious crime? Why to choose to run for a different party for the next election in April 2021. 

So the Parliamentary Standing Orders (intended by the English to enable the management of Parliament and the business of the house), have been gloriously and endlessly corrupted to control and remove the freedom of choice and movement of your validly elected MP’s to join other parties, if they or their electorate wish, or to declare independence when the ‘Party of One’ no longer shares or reflects your values and abuses the authority given by the people. 

These particular Standing Orders (which also dictate the number of MP’s before you can be declared the ‘official’ opposition) have been justified ‘for the stability of Parliament and the country’….which is a hollow and meaningless excuse for such a serious act,  when you already own 45 of the 50 seats in the country’s ‘Mute’ Parliament.

This measure has deprived two electorates of their voice in Parliament at one of the most critical times in our history.

This measure has also removed the voices of two Members of Parliament who are not constrained by the Ruling Party Rules, and are genuinely independent in thought and speech, and so the country has been robbed of their speech and expression within the country’s Legislative Assembly. 

The exercise of power becomes a dangerous weapon in the hands of those who acknowledge no limits to that power. The abject failure of two of the three branches of Government to temper and limit that power, has placed our democracy in peril as all the ‘checks and balances’ cower in the face of the abuse, the bullying and the public shaming.

Our natural respect for position and status has been extensively exploited by the unscrupulous and the graceless. Unless, and until we remove our authority and our approval of those who have abused our trust as well as public resources, through the ballot box, and encourage and vote for MP’s who are honest, ethical and diligent, then we are destined to live in servitude to the whims of the ‘Party of One’ for the rest of our lives. 

The US Election as well as ours, offers people who are free, the ability and power to choose their leaders.

Through prayer and taking positive action, we need democracy, in all its forms, to be fully restored to the Independent State of Samoa, so many voices may speak and contribute to how we are governed, and so we may express what we require from those who are selected to govern us and they listen to us.

‘.., the land of the free, and the home of the brave..,’

Powerful words from the US Anthem as true for us, as for them…

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