Pulenu’u changes a troubling case of Government overreach

From the time of their creation a century ago the role of Pulenu’u (or village mayors) has often been one marked by the awkwardness that can come with being an intermediary. 

As an inheritance from colonial times, the role does not carry the natural authority that comes from our ancient culture. 

And as the designated middlemen between the central Government and village councils, they have often been running between pillar and post between what are ultimately two very different systems of authority. 

Like any public office, the motivations of its occupants vary in quality, from those interested primarily in fortnightly stipends to those who genuinely want to make life better for their villages. 

The amount of work they put into their jobs can be highly variable and the Ministry of Women Community and Social Development has previously noted different levels of competence and enthusiasm displayed at their monthly meetings. 

But despite their lack of historical stature Pulenu’u have ultimately found needed roles in day-to-day life in Samoa's villages. 

Primarily they are representatives. On behalf of the village council which appoints them they act as both communicators of a village’s perspective on the issues and messengers for conveying the position of the Central Government. 

But the role of a Pulenu’u is also vested with significant responsibilities internal to the village. 

These roles range from overseeing title bestowals to certifying that a candidate has met the requirement for election through providing village service (monotaga).

They have also increasingly been used in projects with non-Government organisations such as for infrastructure improvement and investment.

And it is a role that we can only see increasing in stature when a new order of things comes to pass that reorients Samoa’s legal system towards having an emphasis on village rights above all.

This is why it was so curious that the Government, in a typical last-minute rash of measures passed before the dissolution of Parliament last week, included laws seemingly aimed at weakening the Pulenu’u system and villages’ autonomy. 

The changes are subtle but their potential impacts will cast a long shadow.

The Internal Affairs Amendment Bill 2021 passed by Parliament changed only a few words but they carried a lot of significance. 

Implemented by the Ministry of Women Community and Social Development the amendment sought to replace the word "consult village" with "inform the village" if and when a Pulenu’u is removed.

The outgoing Minister Leao Dr. Talalelei Tuitama said the new arrangement allows the Ministry to simply remove Pulenu’u and later inform the village about their decision.

In what was presented as a safeguard against the potential misuse of this new power, the Government also suggested that any affected Pulenu’u will have their right to respond and make the case against their removal. 

On principle, we consider the encroachment of the Government into the domain of village affairs improper.

Appointing a Pulenu’u has always been the prerogative of a village’s council. This amendment weakens these councils’ power over whom they choose as representatives.

This amendment is a disappointing affront to the principle of devolved Government and village autonomy. 

It is especially surprising that it has seemingly been high on the Government’s agenda only to be rolled out at the last minute when its central campaign theme has been upholding village rights; political rhetoric that is obviously directly targeted at village leaders. 

There appears to be a gulf between the Government’s rhetoric on the issue of villages’ self-determination and the reality of its policies.

But aside from assuming greater power for the central Government the new law is deeply troubling because it turns the idea of the burden of proof on its head. 

The new law would subject a Pulenu’u to termination for alleged poor performance only to afford them the chance to defend themselves after they have been removed from their roles. 

This goes against several principles of natural justice which allow people the right to reply to accusations made against them at the time when they are made; or the principle of the presumption of innocence.

As the former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, observed this flies in the face of established procedures for central Government workers employed in Ministries. 

“I understand that the intention is to make it easier for the Ministry [to remove someone],” Fiame interjected. 

“But I am unclear as to why it is difficult to consult first before being removed but there is an opportunity to consult later on. 

“It’s quite immoral (pa’a’a) to cut the service but the usual process for workers there are steps taken prior to their removal.”

We do not have to look far for examples of how this principle works at the level of the central Government. 

The Public Service Commission last year tackled several high-profile cases of alleged improper behaviour by senior Government executives, perhaps most notably Lefaoali’i Unutoa Auelua-Fonoti.

But the commission only moved to initiate disciplinary proceedings against her following a long investigation in which her side of the story was sought. (She strongly denied any allegations of impropriety.)

But why should Pulenu’u be denied the same rights to an investigation and a fair hearing before they are suspended?

We can also see no reason for why the Government is seeking to make it easier for Pulenu’u to be removed and effectively sidelining village councils in the process.

But the move follows senior figures including Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi saying that any village representatives opposed to the Government should stand down.

In this context, we can see a very real prospect that Pulenu'us' ability to serve as truly independent representatives of their villages is now in danger. 

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