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Tuilaepa's deputy move: canny but not correct

And so Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi has declined to appoint a deputy following the resignation of his long-time party colleague Fiame Naomi Mata'afa.

The Prime Minister has made a political decision to steady the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) nearly six months from a national poll. 

But has he made the right decision for the nation? We do not believe he has. Not at a time when Samoa needs all hands on deck to navigate the choppy economic waters of a post-coronavirus world. 

It could be argued Tuilaepa’s move was perhaps his only choice. 

And that is not because, as Tuilaepa said, the job, at least not at the moment, is not one of particular importance and which can be dealt with on the fly. 

“There isn't much work to do at the moment, even with overseas affairs. So we have decided to leave it at asis , the General Election is not far away, it is only months away," he said on Wednesday evening.

“My decision, which has been supported by the party to leave it. 

"They said to leave the appointment of a Deputy Prime Minister up to me and I have decided to just pick someone when I travel to Savai’i or Aleipata leaving my chair open.

"This will also make things easier.”

About that last point, there is no disagreeing with the Prime Minister. 

The events that brought us to the current situation were the result of discontent about the excessive concentration of power in the office of the Prime Minister.

This decision does not solve that and perhaps marginally exacerbates it.

But it does stave off a potentially destabilising situation in which Tuilaepa is forced to promote one of his many loyal lieutenants in the Human Rights Protection Party, some seven months before next year’s national poll. 

The flashpoint for Fiame’s exit from the party was her disagreeing with the introduction of Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) bills that had become signature H.R.P.P. policy.

But making close study of her post-resignation interviews show that her disagreement with the Prime Minister was either deeper than any one policy, or reflected her discontent at not being allowed to raise objections or mould it.

Fiame has deflected when asked if Tuilaepa’s Government is becoming overly authoritarian.

But Fiame said she considers the current iteration of Tuilaepa’s Government, sitting on an enormous majority, has gravitated away from one bound by the rules towards one that is motivated by what is politically convenient.

The title of Prime Minister is one meant to be defined by a latin term ‘primus inter pares’ or the first among equals. 

For anyone who has been paying close attention to Samoan politics recently it would be very difficult to get the impression that Tuilaepa considers himself as such, nor do his Ministers.

Tuilaepa’s party of Government, Fiame said, has grown too comfortable to the luxuries afforded by that immense majority - a move towards looser government that has been underway long since reforms to the L.T.C. were proposed first in March.

"From a rule of law perspective, and perhaps that's the nature of the controversies over the last few years - it's just that slide away from the rule of law,” she said. 

Fiame, who was first elected to Parliament in 1985 and, as the daughter of Samoa’s first Prime Minister, Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II, knows a little bit more about the norms of good Government and politics in Samoa than most.

One of the beautiful things about the Westminster system of Government is specialisation.

Talented Ministers are given policy areas to master, make decisions on and to brief and hear feedback from their cabinet colleagues. 

This allows for the vast responsibilities of Government to be performed competently and without too much investment of duties into any one person. That prevents decision-making gridlock, allows for the best use of talent within a party and prevents the terrible setbacks that can occur if a Government acquires a lynchpin. 

Fiame’s comments aside, we do not have to look too far to find examples of this principle becoming eroded in Tuilaepa’s Government. 

Decisions, it seems, come from the Prime Minister’s office always.

Who could forget in May this year when the Minister for Samoa Airways, Lautafi Sio Purcell, who said that he had “no idea” when Samoa would be receiving a new aircraft to replace that returned by Malindo Air.

That very month the Prime Minister said that he expected that Samoa would take receipt of the new plane by about next month.

The plane still hasn’t been sighted. But the point is clear.

For now Tuilaepa keeps a lid on his cabinet colleagues by elevating one to his deputy.

But what would be in the nation’s best interests were for them all to be elevated, in status if not title, to a group of intelligent elected representatives who can shape this nation’s future. 


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