Samoa’s version of democracy? Exercise caution

Three days on from the Parliament’s passing of the contentious Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) legislation on Tuesday, the public remains divided on the long-term benefits of these three laws, which will now trigger far-reaching changes to the structure of the judiciary including judges’ appointment process.

Staying true to his style in Samoan politics, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi remains unapologetic over the suit of newly enacted laws that local and international legal experts have widely condemned, deriding them over the last eight months for being rude, having COVID-19, lacking understanding of the law, thinking like palagi, and sticking their noses into Samoa’s affairs which he argues shouldn’t be their concern.

Speaking during his weekly program on TV3 on Wednesday a day after the passage of the laws, Tuilaepa claimed that over 80 per cent of the country’s population supported the controversial legislation, and the four Members of Parliament who voted against it “misinterpreted” the changes being proposed.

It is now obvious, based on the nine-months that this issue has dominated the press and public conversation in Samoa, that any alternate views to proposed legislation put forward by the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.)-led Government and the Prime Minister, are irrelevant and becomes secondary in the whole scheme of things.

That was clearly the case on Tuesday, when the Parliament Speaker Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa’afisi refused to accept amendments proposed by the former Deputy Prime Minister and Lotofaga Member of Parliament Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, to a motion tabled the Special Parliamentary Committee Chair Gatoloaifa’ana Amataga Gidlow. 

Fiame wanted Members to be given time to through the Committee’s report, which was only distributed to them on the day of the sitting and on the eve of the crucial vote, again, another breach of Parliamentary Standing Orders by the Speaker. 

Claims by Tuilaepa that 80 per cent of the country’s population supported the L.T.C. bills are debatable, especially when under the Westminster system of Parliamentary Democracy there is an emphasis on making Parliamentary Committees bipartisan, thus having the ability to cross-party lines to collect wider community’s views without promoting the agenda of the Government of the day.

The Gatoloaifa’ana-chaired Committee was not bipartisan – due to the absence of Opposition Members and the dominance of the H.R.P.P. in its composition – and the Committee Members explicitly promoted the Government’s agenda on the L.T.C. bills during the public hearings, thus denying ordinary citizens their only opportunity to express their views without fear or favour.

But how long can Samoa continue to hold itself out as a parliamentary democracy when Tuilaepa and until now his recently-appointed Attorney General Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale see it fit to twist the definition of the word (democracy) and the values that it universally represents and should stand for?

Savalenoa, in a statement issued a day after Parliament’s enactment of the L.T.C. bills, declared that the new laws solidify “Samoa’s own form of democracy”.

"Overall, what is important to note is that these new Acts have confirmed for us that Samoa has its own form of democracy, defined by our Constitution, and influenced by Christianity and our Samoa customs and traditions," she said. "Our democracy does not subordinate our Samoa culture, it thrives because of it.”

Perhaps, the Attorney General should be reminded of the features of a thriving democratic state: free and fair elections; active participation of the people in politics and civic duty; and the protection of human or individual rights. 

And the H.R.P.P.-led Government has already come under scrutiny this year for introducing laws that restrict the rights of citizens from contesting, and the overlooking of individual rights for communal rights is promoted in the recently passed legislation.

Therefore, we must exercise caution when the Government’s Chief Legal Advisor releases statements – which announce that they are creating Samoa’s own form of democracy – as case studies of democratic states around the world that espouse to go down the same path, step away from universally accepted democratic ideals, and go one step closer or even embrace authoritarianism.

But all is not lost on this beautiful nation of ours called Samoa, as members of the public absorb all that has happened in the last three days, emanating from the House which supposedly should be representing the people’s interests.

Fiame has rightly pointed to the ability of citizens to shift their focus to the 2021 General Election in order to right the wrongs of the current Government.

“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.

“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.”

Looking at the issue from the outside, the now enacted L.T.C. bills have brought out the worst of the ruling party in hijacking our parliamentary processes to push through and pass dubious legislation, and the best of a few Members who have gone against the tide to take on the Government.

Ultimately where Samoa goes from here could come down to the ballot and which way you cast your vote. Your vote is precious, think about your aiga and the impact that political leaders will have on your lives today and into the future.

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