Public interest? Even playing field? Fairness?

The Prime Minister’s request for a special payment for a select few senior Government officials, who have resigned to contest the General Election next year, raises many questions. At a time when the economic prospects for this country have plummeted to an all time low exacerbated by COVID19, one really has to question the logic behind such a decision.

While the amount of money might only be a drop in the bucket in the bigger scheme of things, it is the principle that matters. Even more alarming is the idea that a benchmark has been set where this sort of carrying on will be encouraged.

Don’t get us wrong here, if these payments were part of normal Government policy, where public servants stepping down for elections were entitled to as part of their contracts, then by all means they should be made without question.

But this is why this issue doesn’t feel and smell right. It certainly does not appear to be in line with standards and principles of good governance. If it wasn’t done before for all other Government officials who had to quit their jobs to run for Parliament, why now? What’s even more interesting is the idea that the Attorney General has been asked for an opinion on how to legitimise something that was never there in the first place, and should never be there.

For the uninitiated, the issue was exposed on the front page of the Weekend Observer under the headline “P.M. asks for payout for officials turned candidates.” The “one-off” payout is being sought for six Government officials including the former C.E.O of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ulu Bismarck Crawley; former C.E.O. of the Electric Power Corporation, Tologata Tile Tuimaleali’ifano; former Commissioner of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority, Lelevaga Fa'afouina Mupo; former Avele College Principal, Matafeo Reupena Matafeo; former A.C.E.O. Ministry of Health, Mae’e Ualesi Silva, and former A.C.E.O. of the of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Aiolupotea Tony Leleisuao.

In a submission to Cabinet, Prime Minister Tuilaepa requested that the officials’ contracts be paid from 23 October 2020 until the final session of Parliament.

 “It is clear the [...the payout] is not part of their contract,” Tuilaepa writes in a submission to Cabinet. But the Prime Minister cited the Attorney General’s advice for Cabinet to consider this as a “one-off” case.

 “Is the Government obligated to pay out the remaining of the parties’ contract term upon resignation and termination by way of registration for nomination as candidates for election?” Attorney General Savalenoa wrote.

 “I advise this request is not provided for under the relevant laws or granted under the Contracts of Employment. There is no specific law providing for any entitlements of public servants and Government officers upon resignation and termination by way of nomination for election purposes.”

That’s crystal clear, isn’t it? According to the Government’s top legal advisor, what the Prime Minister is asking for cannot be done. Period. Still, perhaps she felt obligated to provide a favourable response so she presses further by touching on the principles of “public interest” and “fairness.”

“[Candidates] are now required to resign 3 months before [the] dissolution of Parliament (as opposed to the previous nomination requirements),” Savalenoa’s advice continues.  “This would be perceived as not providing an even playing field for all persons intending to enter a nomination as a candidate in any election. That means a period of approximately five months without financial support, church and as well as village matters, due to the changes in the law [...] introduced close to the General Election 2021, a factor beyond their control.

 “In consideration of the public interest and principle of fairness, the government may wish to consider approving the following for the parties on the basis of a special one-off case.”

Now let’s pause here for a second and think very carefully about some key principles that have been highlighted by the Attorney General.

Think about terms such as “public interest”, an “even playing field”, “fairness” and all that wonderful stuff. Let’s also think about the Electoral Act.

Who was the genius behind this law? Was not the most recent Electoral Act, which has now been brought into question here by the Attorney General, designed by this very same Government and Prime Minister?

How will “public interest” be served by doing what the Prime Minister is asking for, when it is clearly not in accordance with the law? And what “even playing field” are we talking about here? Is it ironic, or is it a mere coincidence that all six former senior public servants being advocated for here by the Prime Minister in his submission are all contesting the election for the H.R.P.P?

Lastly, that word “fairness” stands out like a sore thumb. We’re thinking of former Members of Parliament in Olo Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong, who have lost their seats under the very same Electoral Act, which the Government is now trying to get around to give a leg up to H.R.P.P. candidates.

Did somebody consider fairness when it came to the decision to vacate their seats? Did Prime Minister Tuilaepa, as the “leader of the House”, seek the advice of Attorney General Savalenoa? Did they not consider that like all those senior government officials, Olo and Faumuina also have obligations to “church and as well as village matters” whom they are struggling to fulfill “due to the changes in the law [...] introduced close to the General Election 2021.”

Fairness? Even playing field? Public interest? It’s hard to say.

But that’s just how we see it, we could be wrong. What do you think?

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