Democratic principles and practicalities
As we wait for the outcome of a ruling on the moral and legal principles of the caretaker Government’s conduct it is worth remembering that the decision will carry practical consequences, too.
Whether or not Samoa makes a break with democratic Government will negatively affect our international relations; the welfare of our people; and our place in the global economy upon which we are so dependent.
This fact was brought home by a story on the front page of Wednesday’s edition of the Samoa Observer, which carried extraordinarily frank comments from Aupito William Sio, New Zealand’s Minister for Pacific Peoples, about the conduct of the caretaker Government towards the judiciary (“We can never attack Judiciary': Minister Aupito”).
The comments were remarkable, coming, as they did, from a man who usually focuses on the things that bind New Zealand to the rest of the region, especially Samoa, not divide it.
But they were also an extraordinarily frank condemnation of the conduct of the caretaker Government and an explicit reminder that moving farther away from democracy will likely have more consequences.
"At the moment our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (M.F.A.T) as well as our High Commissioner's office are still in contact with the caretaker Government right now,” he told Radio Samoa.
“We are preparing to help our Judiciary's office in anything they want.
“These are the things that I can reveal but there are other works that the Government of New Zealand is preparing for.
"These are the important parts of the constitution for any Democratic country.
“If you take a look at the work we do here in New Zealand, no matter how much the people complain about the judges, we (Ministers and members of Parliament) can never attack, complain or point fingers at anyone in the judiciary or even a judge.”
Though it is a secondary or even tertiary question to the issue of principle that is how Samoa and its people choose to be governed, there is still a pragmatic question of whether we are prepared to trade our international reputation for the benefit of one domestic political party.
Aupito’s comments remind us that doing so will limit our potential international allies, programmes for development assistance and, ultimately, a loss to our independence.
What these “other works” that the Government of New Zealand is preparing for to which Aupito refers entail is not known. But the reference is a useful reminder that we are fighting a battle that will have ramifications not only for how we as a people are governed but also how we are viewed on the global stage.
Aupito’s statements come after Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and the Commonwealth of Nations have all called upon Samoa, in more diplomatic tones, to convene its Parliament. They have been worded diplomatically but are clearly aimed at the caretaker Government’s refusal to have the Legislative Assembly sit and lose its grip on power.
In the corridors of foreign Ministries in Wellington and Canberra, where diplomats speak openly and privately, there is evident frustration at the caretaker Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi.
Privately diplomats at the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Canberra are bemused at the seemingly complete lack of impact its statement has had and the caretaker Prime Minister’s seeming total disregard for it despite their years of development support.
China has latterly entered Samoa’s top five aid donors but, over the long haul, the region’s two largest democracies, Australia and New Zealand, and multilateral institutions dedicated to promoting democracy and the rule of law, primarily the World Bank, have been our biggest financial benefactors.
Some people will bristle about the issue of national sovereignty whenever a foreign nation makes a comment about Samoan affairs.
And this is fair enough.
But commentary of this nature is based on principle not policy. We are being urged to continue upholding the rule of law as we have been for six decades. Openness to such criticism is part of the cost of admission to the community of democratic nation states.
And basides, ultimately, the long-term consequences of dumping democracy will do more harm to our national sovereignty than any other nation making a suggestion ever would.
It is a rare thing for a country to maintain an unbroken streak of democratic rule, especially in the Pacific, such as we have since independence.
It is to be expected that other democracies will lament any signs of democratic decay.
Our own Tuilaepa did exactly the same thing when he criticised the mental fitness of Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in 2009 and suggested he was a dictator.
That was after Mr. Bainimarama plunged Fiji into a crisis of its own after overriding the rule of law when he dismissed the nation’s judges and constitutional appointees wholesale. It is not by any stretch a model democracy today, but it took a decade after that act for Fiji to be welcomed into the community of nations again, such as when it was allowed to re-enter the Pacific Islands Forum.
And Fiji provides a perfect case study of how whether we choose to adhere to the rule of law or not will have much longer-term impacts for our nation - for the period of the current Parliament and beyond.
Adherence to democratic values are likely to be the dividing line on which constellations and alliances are formed in the South Pacific in the coming decade.
There has been increasing talk about the future alliance of the so-called “Quad” in the broader region - the United States, Japan, Australia and India - all nations with shared commitments to democratic values.
But not only will democratic values define our development partners, they are likely to shape the future of our development too.
Ours is an economy that is heavily dependent on money from abroad in the form of tourism, aid and remittances from overseas. The amount each contributes has varied in recent times but in any given year it would be safe to say that they collectively contribute nearly two-thirds to our total economy.
The fact is our standing in the eyes of others matters, not just as a question of respect but consequences.
The result of flouting democratic norms will likely be a narrowing of the nation’s potential income sources. Democratic nations tend to stick together; democratic countries tend to prioritise aid to other democracies; a country’s political status heavily influences its desirability as a destination for tourists from wealthy nations.
We saw the perfect example of this after Fiji’s democratic decline in 2009. When the country was ostracised for its descent into dictatorship, its financial dependence on China increased massively, as did its outstanding loans from the country.
Representing 40 per cent of our external debt - the second highest in the region behind Tonga - there is not much room for us to move in terms of falling into further reliance on Chinese money without serious economic risks.
But the lessons of recent history are clear: cutting ourselves off from nations built on the principles of transparency can only diminish our presence and freedom on the world stage.