Parliament tension calls for fairness in application of Standing Orders
Tension in Parliament is not unusual just as screaming, shouting and finger pointing are not strange bedfellows to Parliamentary democracy the world over.
It happens everywhere, including some of the places we least expect it, where we have also witnessed extreme examples of the passion used during debate turn into ugly all out brawls and violent fist fights.
In Samoa, we haven’t reached that level yet but we came pretty close on Tuesday when tensions boiled over at the Maota Fono where Parliament's Sergeant-at-Arms was forced to intervene to prevent a physical altercation between two senior Members of Parliament during the break.
What started out as just another ordinary session where Parliament had convened to table and discuss the Meteorology, Geoscience and Ozone Services Bill 2020, quickly became very spectacular.
Indeed, what we all quickly realised was that the bill, tabled by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi in his capacity as the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, was a mere formality.
What transpired instead was a screaming and shouting match as a result of tension that had been slowly building up ahead of the session so that Parliament merely became the outlet for release. And boy wasn’t it interesting to follow.
Suffice to say, the clash between Prime Minister Tuilaepa and the Leader of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party, La’auli Leuatea Schmidt, which boiled over to the confrontation between La’auli and Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi, will be talked about for some time to come.
In the age of social media, people with the creative juice will have a field day in terms of memes and other interesting things they will come up with. The cartoon on the front page of your newspaper could not have depicted it better. It was one for the ages.
“Just sit down,” Tuilaepa yelled across the floor to La’auli, who shouted right back: “You sit down.” But what sparked the debate? How did it become so fiery quite quickly? Well it started after Prime Minister Tuilaepa had tabled the only bill on the agenda, which hardly attracted a ripple from the House.
When the floor was opened for debate, La’auli was the first speaker but instead of talking about the bill, he used the opportunity to express his disappointment about the decision by the Speaker of Parliament, Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa’afisi to declare the seats for Salega East and Urban West vacant, after Olo Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong, joined F.A.S.T.
“You have made a decision on these brothers,” Laauli said, “and yet there are Associate Ministers sitting in here who have broken the law and yet nothing is done to them. Not one thing. Where is justice?”
Although La’auli did not mention a name, we can tell you that the Associate Minister he was referring to is the Associate Minister of Finance, Lei’ataua Mulipola Laki, who has been prevented from contesting next year’s election because of a criminal conviction.
In Lei’ataua and the Speaker’s defense, Prime Minister Tuilaepa immediately objected. “The Associate Minister didn’t change his party, which is what this decision (about Olo and Faumuina) was based upon,” Tuilaepa said. “These two were in this Parliament when this law was passed. It appears that they pretended not to understand the law and now they are accusing you Mr. Speaker… It’s so easy for the Member to throw around lies in this house…”
To be called a liar is not something that should be taken lightly, especially for a Member of Parliament and Laauli had just had enough.
“For the Prime Minister to keep saying we are stupid and we don’t know anything, with due respect, this is not a small matter. He keeps saying we don’t know anything and we don’t understand,” Laauli fired back.
“How can he continue with such reckless words? Who are you (Tuilaepa) to question this constituency? You are not the Speaker of Parliament, Sole.”
Turning to the Speaker, Laauli said: “Mr. Speaker, are you listening to the words he’s throwing around? How many times has he said this and accused me of these things.
“The world has heard time and time again how he’s called me a thief and a liar please. How can you allow such claims to be made? Toleafoa, Sole how can you allow the Prime Minister to run amok and behave ever so rudely, what about us?”
La’auli has a legitimate point, one that most of us who follow Parliament proceedings quite closely will understand. What do the Standing orders say and how are they being enforced? Do the Standing orders give the Prime Minister free reign over the house? Who do Standing orders apply to and who do they not when it comes to vacating seats?
Indeed, the clashes on Tuesday raise an even more pertinent question about control of Parliament and its proceedings. It should also be a wake up call about the need for a firmer and fairer grip on proceedings. This country is at a juncture where emotions are at an all time high when it comes to matters of political nature.
Where there is smoke, there is bound to be fire. And when two blades of steel clash, with sparks flying in all directions, we only hope there’s no fuel leakage close by that could lead to an eruption we could all one day regret. Stay tuned!