Fiame's understatement a unique political force
Fiame Naomi Mata'afa is many things.
She was, of course, until, recently, of course, the nation’s first-ever female Deputy Prime Minister. She is the daughter of its first-ever Prime Minister.
Her grandfather, Le Mamea Matatumua Ata, was one of the framers of this great nation’s constitution.
And her descent from the tama-a-'aiga (royal lineage) system that stands apart from formal Parliamentary politics but is at least, if not more, influential than it, is also a key part of her political identity.
She is also a veteran politician and a consummate political strategist. That can be easy to forget for a woman with such a regal bearing as hers.
But on the front page of today’s Samoa Observer, we are reminded of this fact and the way it intersects with these other qualities to give her a place in Samoan politics that no one else can occupy.
Fiame has been at the centre of power in Samoa for decades; she was first appointed a member of cabinet in 1991.
In that time she had a seat at the table of a cabinet that has presided over a period of economic prosperity and development in Samoa, for which we give the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) due credit.
But she also saw a Government wracked by scandal over more than three decades.
Dating back from the 1995 bid to sack Su’a Rimoni Ah Chong, from the office of Controller and Chief Auditor as a consequence of a bombshell report detailing widespread corruption to recent issues relating to tendering and contracting, she has been a witness to malfeasance.
Let us be clear we do not think that this implies a degree of complicity or responsibility on Fiame’s part.
On the contrary. In a career where most figures in Samoan public life, up to and including the Prime Minister’s, are at the very least speckled by scandal, hers is not.
She told this newspaper she has sought to influence her party for the better from within.
“One of the things I have been able to do is speak up. I don’t speak up that often but I do in Cabinet, sometimes in caucus, but if you are only one voice…,” she said.
Her unsoiled record in public life combined with the dignity of her presence lends her critiques of Government the power of subtlety that others now speaking out against the Government do not possess.
Olo Fiti Vaai, Faumuina Wayne Fong and La’auli Leuatea Schmidt cast aspersions on Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and projects that his Government leads.
But when Fiame speaks, she exercises the power of understatement.
In her interview today, Fiame made clear that it was a plan to overhaul the Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) that led her to quit the Government.
She maintains that as she missed the opportunity to speak to the bills in during their first reading speech due to being absent, she had to do so before a Parliamentary committee.
That, she said, brought her into an unresolvable conflict and forced her hand to resign as Deputy Prime Minister but also from the H.R.P.P.
She, rightly in our view, said the bills put the rule of law in Samoa in jeopardy, were poorly drafted and could lead to community division.
But she also offered her analysis for why the Government had chosen this issue as a major plank of its platform for the April election.
She sees the Government setting up an election platform that, on its face, will have widespread appeal in Samoa’s villages: a fight between foreign and Samoan notions of justice.
“They want to pull something out that will draw the country to continue to support H.R.P.P.,” she said.
But reading between the lines of her interview it seems unlikely that this alone was what pushed Fiame towards the exit, although she notes she was never present for the bill’s first reading speech in Parliament.
Her insistence on sticking to the L.T.C. script is a glimpse of Fiame the veteran politician.
But she also hinted at other issues that had led her to question the conduct of the Government of which she was a part, including the failure last year to secure a two-thirds majority in the Parliament to end the judicial career of Fepuela’i Atilla Ropati following his criminal conviction.
Fiame further said the decision to overlook Justice Vui Clarence Nelson as the nation’s Chief Justice “was quite shocking to the judicial sector”.
When pressed she was reluctant to go into detail about other problems she had with the conduct of Government. But what she did say was revealing.
“There is a clear hold on the executive, there is a clear hold in Parliament because of the pure numbers,” she said.
“I understand Governments and power but I also understand when that power overtakes, when there are no controls over it.
“One would hope that there is sufficient restraint within the ranks, but obviously there is not. They feel that the degree of the hold of power they have [means] they can do that, by changing laws.
“When you get to the point where you can change laws to do the wrong things, then I think we are in a very dangerous space.”
One does not have to read between the lines to see these are not comments solely about the L.T.C. bills.
But she is declining to join the chorus of criticism led by other dissident M.P.s about recent issues relating to Government tendering and contracting.
“The other boys are talking about it and that will do. I would rather not comment. Because it distracts me from the issue that I am trying to push through,” she said.
Whether it was part of a controlled demolition job or merely a consequence of the pressure cooker of Parliament, Fiame’s exit from the party is part of a combination that has the Prime Minister rattled. The combination in the Parliament of a dignified stateswoman and the pressure applied by the "other boys'" criticism is a powerful one, indeed.
One year ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Tuilaepa, as a man whose political persona is built on cockiness, to concede that his Government could face trouble at the next election unless it cut down its candidate numbers to avoid splitting its vote.
On Monday when pressed how she might have led a Government differently Fiame batted away the question.
In doing so she displayed how her marriage of personal qualities makes her, whether she wants to discuss it or otherwise, the woman most likely - and a key reason why the Prime Minister appears flustered.