Parliament has a price - but what value?
On Friday we marked the one-month anniversary since the beginning of the final sitting of the final session of our 16th Parliament.
The occasion has been cause for recriminations.
The Government has accused M.P.s campaigning with the Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party of effectively “stealing” their salaries by being serially absent from Parliament.
Opposition M.P.s, in response, have accused the Government of unnecessarily prolonging the final session of Parliament as a political tactic. By obliging their opponents to attend Parliament their time on the campaign trail is limited, the M.P.s argue.
Independent M.P. and F.A.S.T. candidate for the general election, Olo Fiti Vaai, went so far as to accuse the Government of playing “dirty politics and dirty tricks using taxpayers' money.”
Such criticism is couched in the exaggerated language of pre-election politics. But there is something to the substance, if not style, of Olo’s remarks.
Sittings, especially a Parliament’s final one, cost taxpayers money. Upon its dissolution, a majority of M.P.s will cease to officially occupy their positions and draw a salary (excepting 12 Cabinet Ministers who can continue to receive remuneration while acting in caretaker mode up until the election.)
Parliamentarians’ salaries collectively cost the taxpayer $5.54 million, according to Government estimates provided for the 2018 Financial Year.
Conservatively that puts the monthly cost of staging a session of Parliament at more than $450,000 in M.P.s’ salaries alone, not accounting for the extraneous costs of staff.
So a question arises: what have we received for this near half-million tala in expenditure?
Reports of the past month’s Parliamentary proceedings suggest the return on our investment has been underwhelming, to say the very least.
As a point of comparison, December’s session of Parliament was, to its detractors, a flurry of activity and proceeded much too fast in view of the gravity of the legislation before the house.
The Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Bill 2020, and Judicature Bill 2020 were passed on 15 December.
Opposition M.P.s claimed the passage of these bills was rushed, with newly-inserted provisions only made available to members on the morning of the vote.
That issue has been raked over extensively on these pages before.
But December showed us the results a Parliament operating at top-speed achieves.
The pace of the past month’s session has been more than sluggish.
We do not begrudge Members of Parliament using the session to give valedictory speeches at the end of their five-year term as representatives. After all, some will not be back, depending on the outcomes of the elections.
But how long should we be allowing for the public purse to subsidise public goodbyes?
On one reckoning, if the fabric of our democracy can be altered in a day no more than a week should be needed for farewells.
Even if we allow for double that time, taxpayers are paying a bill reaching beyond hundreds of thousands of tala for speeches that are hardly contributing to democratic debate.
M.P.s’ speeches during the current session have been needlessly padded, devoid of substantive policy content, highly politicised, or, worse, self-indulgent.
Contributions from the floor have often consisted of swapping political insults or an M.P. plumping up his own legacy.
With an election now fewer than 50 days away, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology accused the Government’s chief election opponents of being “numerically illiterate”.
That contribution at least had the redeeming quality of being made in response to the budgetary implications of the opposition party’s policy platform, such as increasing the minimum wage.
The same cannot be said about his contribution to an earlier debate about F.A.S.T.-aligned M.P.s being absent from Parliament:
“I suspect the [independent] members on this side of the House may be afflicted with illness from smoking tobacco. And if it is something appropriate, I request that they go through a medical check before they come back,”, Afamasaga Rico Tupai said.
Who benefits from these changes?
Again, we contrast the leisurely approach taken this month when almost nothing of consequence has come before legislators with December’s frantic sessions.
Tributes by Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi about his late mother are heartfelt and touching - but are they Parliamentary business?
The opposition says that the Government is stretching out the current Parliamentary term as an election tactic.
That may or may not be true.
But more pressingly, as taxpayers, we are entitled to ask a much more basic question: what benefits have we received for paying to keep Parliament open?
The evidence is thin.