Prime Minister's creeping control a problem for governance

We have long since passed the point that Government and politics in Samoa is viewed through the lens of a one-party state.

Instead, we are now hearing about the ill-effects of much greater kind of centralised power: the one-person state. 

The front page of Sunday’s edition of the Samoa Observer carried a story that chronicled the ill-effects of the Prime Minister as an individual intervening with what is intended to be the self-sufficient machinery of the state (“Tuilaepa undermining independent Govt: Fiame”.)

These reports are particularly damning. 

Coming, as they do, from his former deputy Fiame Naomi Mata'afa - a veteran M.P. who was until recently his deputy - they provide as much insight into Tuilaepa’s style of governance as we could expect from anyone else in the world. 

They also gel with a number of examples of Tuilaepa overturning, intervening, and meddling with the work of his own Ministers and Samoa’s notionally independent institutions. 

Earlier in the year, the Minister of Public Enterprises, Lautafi Selafi Purcell, said he had “no idea” about when a new Samoa Airways jet might be leased only for the Prime Minister to announce a week later: “We have decided to fly in our new aircraft around the end of June.”

Another example came when the Prime Minister felt no compunction about writing to the head of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration’s Chief Executive Officer and Supreme Court Justices about a case in which he was directly involved as the subject of an alleged assassination plot. 

Tuilaepa demanded an answer for why the accused in the matter had been granted bail.

That intervention is now being used as evidence by human rights bodies such as Amnesty International as evidence for questioning the independence of Samoa’s judiciary when the Prime Minister feels comfortable calling what is meant to be an entirely separate arm of Government to task. 

We might ask: what is the point in having Ministers or Ministries when their decisions must run through the pivot point of the Prime Minister’s office or be overturned on a whim.

In good Governments, the very term Prime Minister denotes someone who is first among equals or another seat at the cabinet table. 

The Prime Minister may, as he is wont to do, suggest that old aphorisms about democracies being run by “laws not men” do not apply in the Samoan context. 

But this is far beyond a question of ideals. 

The Prime Minister’s interference is having a very practical and very negative effect on the Samoan state, which taxpayers finance every year to the tune of nearly $1 billion.

As Fiame noted, the Prime Minister’s disregard for ideals such as an independent public service has serious ramifications; they gum up the machinery of Government. 

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

"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?”

She also lamented the fact that voters, rather than seeing their own Members of Parliament in order to resolve problems, have become accustomed to seeking out the Prime Minister as a sort of Mr. Fix It who involves himself in day-to-day concerns while also notionally running a country. 

There are many evident problems with the merging of man and Government in this fashion: the bottleneck on achieving change is only one of them.

Good leaders should delegate their powers to institutions that become specialists in their fields. 

Specialisation in Government leads to the best policy-making and execution; one-man bands do not. 

Governments should also not be hostage to the preoccupations and whims of its leader.

At the conclusion of a year in which Samoa had endured so much challenge and hardship (and state of emergency regulations, many, apparently the brainchild of the Prime Minister himself, not medical specialists) it was this newspaper that was on Tuilaepa’s mind yet again. 

The Prime Minister’s jumping-off point for his latest attack on the Samoa Observer was our choice of the “People of the Year”. 

For 2020, we decided to bestow that accolade to four Samoans we considered to have distinguished themselves unusually in the fight against Tuilaepa’s signature legislative achievement: restructuring fundamentally the legal system.

The passage of these bills into law, which grant the Prime Minister increased power to determine the composition of the courts, are but the highest expression of a trend that has been underway for more than 20 years.

Now that the Judicial Service Commission, a body composed of individuals appointed by the Prime Minister himself, can determine the make-up of the courts rather than the Parliament that process has reached its pinnacle. 

We considered those who led the fight against damaging the rule of law and the further melding of Tuilaepa and the state of Samoa itself as worthy of recognition. 

But with what appeared to be a calculated casualness, the Prime Minister said this newspaper’s honourees had received a dubious honour. 

“So what? It could be an act of respect. Kalofae (my sympathies)," he said, chuckling to a question teed up by an announcer on his programme on state-owned media. 

"If that was me in this year’s [Person of the Year], I’d say, ‘No thank you! Thank you so much for this honour, but I don’t want it’.”

Tuilaepa even suggested that working at the Samoa Observer had the effect of making its journalistic staff stupid and pushing them to the brink of insanity. 

Very well. Our only minor quibble with this aspect of the Prime Minister’s critique is its logic: he assumes that insanity is not a prerequisite we select for in our (very rigorous) hiring process but rather a by-product of working in this newsroom. 

(Nor do we have any record of Tuilaepa making similar criticisms when he was made this newspaper’s man of the year, three years ago.)

But this latest dressing down of the editorial staff of this newspaper - to which we have come to expect and rather enjoy - is further testament to the dangers of a single person’s creeping control over the entire apparatus of Government. 

Was another attack on this newspaper really what should have been front of mind for the leader of our nation and the people he governs for after a year marked by so many challenges? 

We can think of some more pressing problems he might have chosen to tackle in his final address to the nation. 

But instead, the Prime Minister keeps calling his own tune. 

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