Tuilaepa undermining independent Government: Fiame

The Prime Minister is undermining the work of Samoa's Government Ministries by placing himself at the centre of their decision-making and stripping them of independence, his former deputy has said.

Speaking exclusively to the Samoa Observer, three-decade Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) insider and former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, says she has watched on as the independence of the nation's public service has been dismantled and its decisions routed exclusively through the Office of the Prime Minister for approval.

The Prime Minister's orienting of Samoa's Government around himself is slowing down the process of governing and is generally to the nation's detriment, the M.P. for Lotofaga says.

"It’s almost like nothing happens until it comes from the top, so everything else is dysfunctional,” she said in her last interview of the year.  

"For me looking at the public service, this is not great. What does that tell you; that the public needs to see the top dog in order for their world to be done?

“That the people there who are immediately responsible for it are not held accountable to the public?”

Fiame said the changes were driven by Tuilaepa and accepted by a public increasingly accepting of the fact they needed to see him for any and all decisions from basic infrastructure to water supply or school buildings. Citizens find themselves in their Prime Minister’s waiting room more often than their actual democratic representative's, she said.

“It’s a worry to me. It’s a dumbing down, because people aren’t actually doing their work, their functions,” Fiame said.

With his increased power, the Public Service Commission has become less independent in its ability to act as a check on the Government, Fiame continued.

“One very clear check within the Executive was an independent public service, and that is gone. The Commissioner now is like any other public servant.”

Fiame’s concerns are not dissimilar from others around the world, looking at powerful centralised leadership and its effect on the quality of decision making.

In the United Kingdom, experts worry that over-centralisation is the root of problems in housing and health, while in India excessive centralisation has meant that even for the population of 1.3 billion, the projects that take off are decided by the Prime Minister, according to the former director of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan.

After her shock resignation from her party and Cabinet position in September over the Land and Titles Court, Judicature Amendment and Constitution Amendment Bills, Fiame has been out campaigning on the new legislation and what citizens can do about the new laws.

It is simple, she says: they can vote their Member of Parliament, who voted for the bills, out of Parliament in April's election and elect someone who will respect their wishes.

“If people do determine they have been hard done by, by these laws, that they will utilise their power of the vote,” she said.

She said she and the leadership of the new political party Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) are determined to reshape not only Government, but how representatives work with their constituencies.

Instead of the norm, where Parliamentarians meet their district on a more traditional level, Fiame wants to see citizens demand more from their voice in Parliament.

Today, she said, they are sought after for immediate needs, like school feels and travel fare abroad. And while this is a recognised traditional custom, how Samoa sees its M.P.s has room to grow.

“The Parliamentary model we are all working on is much more about the collective,” she said.

“And it’s right that the public should be coming to their M.P.s for help but then what kind of help?

“There is a fine line between giving money and the Samoan custom of people coming to seek help.”

But she can see it changing. In Siumu last month, she and the F.A.S.T. candidate for the district Atuatasi Katifa Tu'u'u Faletoese-Bryce addressed a gathering to introduce Atuatasi, and to discuss the controversial bills.

During that meeting, a woman asked Atuatasi: “What are you going to do for me?”

“I have been a politician since ’85, and never in a village meeting has someone said ‘what are you going to do for me,’” Fiame said.

“It comes down to people understanding issues that take them beyond their immediate need and appreciate a broader protection that includes them as well.”

When she joined Parliament in 1985, her version of being a Member and representative for the district was to advocate for, and advance community development, and that way of working has become squashed and needs reviving, she said.

“I am finding it very interesting now working with F.A.S.T. and the candidates,” she said.

“We are advocating not only for a change of Government but a different way of working and it requires a team, whoever that may be, to really understand that and move it forward.

“My memory early on of H.R.P.P. is that it was about that. They really talked through things. I think that has been part of the issue now with H.R.P.P. having been in for so long, I don’t see that vigour on development issues.

“Sadly, it’s become about maintaining being there.”

One complication on the road to upending the new laws is that the custom between M.P.s and their constituents might leave some feeling obliged to vote them back in to Parliament.

On that score, Fiame reminds that by law, a person’s vote is secret.

“My message for young people is [that] this is an opportunity. 

“This election is feeling highly contested. This is an opportunity for them to do the very basic thing: know who is running, if possible have a chance to have a face to face or at least be in the vicinity where they can see those people in action.

“Essentially, it’s about being more informed about your vote.”

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