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Fight against L.T.C. changes goes on: Fiame

Her ongoing campaign against Land and Titles Court reforms did not stop them in Parliament but Lotofaga M.P. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa says the laws can still be stopped - if Samoans vote for change. 

Only four M.P.s cast votes against the three bills proposing radical changes to the judiciary on Tuesday, while 41 voted for legislation that had been significantly amended from its original draft. 

The former Deputy Prime Minister has spent months campaigning against the bills, asking voters to appeal to Parliamentary representatives and insisting the proposals be withdrawn. 

Her speaking out to a Special Parliamentary Committee seeking public feedback on the legislation led to the political veteran's resignation from Cabinet and the party of Government. 

Fiame says she had been prepared for the possibility the bills would be passed all along; politics, after all, often boils down to simple mathematics. 

“If the Government demonstrates it doesn’t care about what people think about this, they will just do what they want,” Fiame told the Samoa Observer.

But her message to constituents all over Samoa is that this battle is not over, with an election scheduled for April.

“If we can’t do anything about it now because of the power of the numbers in the house, our turn comes when we make our vote.”

Speaking to the Samoa Observer after Parliament closed on Tuesday, Fiame said the entire day exemplified the ruling Government’s attitude to the rules.

Proper procedure was not followed, she alleges, with the Parliamentary session starting late, the bills not distributed to all Members before the session started and English versions missing.

“They were still distributing it throughout the day, printing it off, hot off the press. It’s totally inappropriate,” she said.

The order paper, which details Parliament’s agenda, was, she says, incorrectly printed and was missing numbering for the Special Parliamentary Committee’s report into public feedback on the changes. 

Fiame suspects it has not been properly tabled in Parliament as a result.

The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Leaupepe Toleafoa Faafisi, repeatedly denied her requests for an extension of time to explore changes to the laws before votes were cast. 

“He always goes back to his usual thing that what he decides is the final thing,” she said. 

“It was just really shonky. It goes to show how they operate outside the standing orders, outside the procedures of Parliament.”

For the last few months, Fiame has been on a campaign.

She is determined to highlight the risks the new legislation poses to the rule of law in the country, and to hold Parliament accountable for passing them into law. 

Where elections have been decided along family lines and historic alliances for nearly 60 years, Fiame is asking a lot of the nearly 100,000 strong voting population.

Ask your representative to vote against the Bills, she urges voters. And if they voted for the bills, vote them out accordingly. 

“If it is passed you get your opportunity to say: ‘We’re not happy with you because you did this, and we don’t trust you to do things in our interest’,” she said.

There are other options to fight the new laws too as former Attorney-General Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu has been instructed by a client to prepare a legal challenge in the Supreme Court to their constitutional validity.

Despite recognising a couple of “wins” in the amendments to the bills, Fiame is not convinced these laws are safe. She notes common law has returned as the basis for a newly independent Land and Titles Court (the initial draft would have explicitly favoured tradition and custom).

“It’s going to be an issue whether the common law principles win our or the discretion of the court and their interpretation of custom and tradition will override that. There is no clarity there,” she said.

“Their answer is we are just starting out and we’ll do it as we go along? Now, does that make sense to you?”

The Land and Titles Bill, the Judicature Amendment Bill and the Constitution Amendment Bill will together, fundamentally alter the structure of the country’s judicial system.

Domestic and international experts have said the bills threaten to undermine democracy in Samoa.

Fiame has been running a campaign dedicated to warning voters of these changes, making trips to rural communities.

The Samoa Observer joined her recently on two journeys to Fagaloa and Lefaga. She got behind the wheel and drove us to Fagaloa and back, plus a drive around the district just for fun.

We weren’t the only ones surprised, with a committee member of the Friends4Fiame group Nynette Sass laughing at the idea of being chauffeured by a former Deputy Prime Minister.

Fiame often repeats her concerns with the bills, but she isn’t bored of retelling them to audiences or fielding their questions. 

She listens patiently to speakers when they stand to ask her a question, taking notes or watching them intently. 

Questions can be a mix of statements, genuine inquiries and praise. 

In Fagaloa, several speakers rise to honour Fiame’s family legacy: her father Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II was Samoa’s first Prime Minister.

In Lefaga, a woman takes the roaming microphone to announce that Olo Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong have won their case in the Supreme Court to take their Parliament seats back. The hall erupts into cheers and applause.

Other speakers tell Fiame they are eager for a change in Government. 

“[Some] were saying they are not surprised I have turned up because of who my father was,” she said after her Fagaloa session, laughing.

“I think they were saying that it obviously is an issue that is serious if I have done what I have done.”

(The Lefaga Talanoa (dialogue) was scheduled  on the same day as Parliament pre-sitting briefing, which she skipped for a “more important” task.)

In the village of Taelefaga in Fagaloa, people have come from 10 villages in the district to hear Fiame speak. 

The community hall is still under construction, but it has been heavily decorated with balloons and streamers adorning its unpainted walls.

After giving her presentation, one by one people get up to share their concerns. Some have studied the bills and have questions about one of their finer points. Others want to know what will happen to their customary land rights, and the rights of their grandchildren and future generations.

“The other really good thing is that they are speaking about the issues that are really present for them,” Fiame said.

“It might be associated with the bills and it may not but it’s also an opportunity to hear that.”

Fiame's national single-issue campaign is a relatively novel introduction to Samoan politics instead of a candidates speaking just to their village fono.

But to invite all of Vaa o Fonoti, or Lefaga and Faleaseela to a village talanoa and open the floor for anyone to talk is a bit different.

“To have a public forum is a new way of working and I think it’s a good development,” Fiame said after her Lefaga session. 

Election hopefuls in the new Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party have jumped on board, asking Fiame for a few minutes during the session to speak to their candidacy and their potential constituency.

In Lefaga, candidate Masinalupe Makesi Masinalupe beamed while addressing the room, introducing Fiame and pledging his support to her, and was met with applause from a growing crowd.

“This is the second meeting we’ve had where I have been asked by F.A.S.T. members for essentially a public platform for them to speak to their candidacy,” she said.

“I am pleased to do that because they are aligned with my mission on these bills.”

After two hours of talking to Fagaloa, she returns to the car to take a “tiki-tour,” driving down to Uafato and back, before heading to Apia. 

She says does not feel drained after so much campaigning. 

“No,” she said. 

“I find it fulfilling.” 

Fiame has been in Parliament since she was 27, and a Minister since her early 30s and that experience is obvious in her manner. 

She speaks in a measured and calm manner and doesn’t raise her voice to make a point and listens to questions intently, taking notes, and answering with a smile or joke.

Picking people from the crowd to ask their questions, Fiame asks a man with a “nice pink shirt” to go next. So before he asks his question he thanks her for her compliment, which makes the hall giggle.

Later on, driving past a hibiscus bush Fiame points out that the colour nearly matches the shirt.

So far this year, Fiame has visited Siumu (twice), Poutasi, Utualii, Fagaloa, and Lefaga on her Bill ending mission. She spoke to a church congregation over a video call over the weekend.

She plans to keep going until the election, taking F.A.S.T. candidates with her where relevant and will join them on their Savaii roadshow later to “do her thing,” she said. 

The districts so far have largely been picked based on whether Fiame or her supporters have a connection to the village (they are trying to minimise village formalities but this has been easier said than done).

Where there aren't family ties, they visit areas where F.A.S.T. are standing candidates, as their “window” into a village. 

When asked if she plans to visit Lepa, the constituency of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, she laughs, pauses and does not say. 

But her team is beginning to sense that the old ways of voting down family lines are running their course. 

“There was a very interesting story in Siumu,” Fiame said on the way to Fagaloa.

“Some of the candidates had been making the rounds to the voters and they went up to this woman and said: ‘We’re here about the elections and we’d like your vote.’ 

“She said: ‘Okay, if you want my vote what are you doing for me?’ And they were quite stumped. They looked blankly at her. 

“Then they offered her money. She said: ‘thank you very much but I am not asking you for money. You give it to me now and then it’s gone. I would like to have my own money.’”

Ms. Sass said this kind of story puts everyone on notice.

“Don’t come to me and make empty promises to me, I want to hear a plan, what are you going to do if you get into this position. It’s no longer $10 for a vote,” she said.

“We’re going on issues now. We’ve done this so many times before with relatives. The moment we finish with the elections they don’t look after us, they ignore us, so no more.”

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