L.T.C. matai sa’o residency clause: a kick in the guts

You have to agree something was not right from the start, when the suit of bills that now make up the recently enacted Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) laws, were first tabled by the Human Rights Protection Party-led Government in the Legislative Assembly in March last year.

And despite local and international opposition from various quarters, including concerns by legal experts and jurist bodies of eminence, the H.R.P.P. Government stuck to its guns in true machiavellian style last December and bulldozed the proposed laws through the Parliament, ensuring their passage with a 41–4 vote.

In pursuit of a democratic utopia, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and his Attorney General Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale have publicly come out in recent weeks, staunchly defending the passed laws and speaking of a brave new world in Samoan democracy.

Amid the applause by the Government’s leaders, came the revelation last week that all Members of Parliament are yet to get the final copy of the passed laws, three weeks after their enactment by the Legislative Assembly.

In any functioning democracy, failure to ensure the Members of Parliament are privy to the details of key legislation prior to a vote being taken on the floor of the House, is frowned upon and not encouraged in order to maintain the integrity of the legislative process.

Therefore, for a Member of Parliament to not be privy to the details of legislation before the crucial vote, and not getting a copy of the new law close to a month later, has to be the cardinal sin.

But this is Samoa, and as Attorney General Savalenoa succinctly said in December following the L.T.C. laws’ passing, this could be “Samoa’s own form of democracy.”

And there appears to be more surprises in store for the people as our elected representatives wait for their copies of the new law.

Opposition Members of Parliament have revealed that the Parliament’s passing of the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020 will see the prohibition of bestowing matai sa’o (paramount chief) titles on people residing outside Samoa.

(According to the Samoa Law Reform Commission, sa’o has a number of meanings such as Titular heads, Principal Matai, head of a family and the principal chief of chieftains of a village. An extended family may have several matai titles, though the highest ranking and most senior title of the family will usually be, but not necessarily, the title that was held by the founder of the family or it may be the founder’s name after whom the family is named. The person who holds this title is known as the Matai Sa’o or Matai Sili of the family and is believed to be the highest ranking person of the aiga.)

The Lotofaga M.P. and former Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, told the Samoa Observer in an interview on Monday that the bestowal of matai sa’o titles will now be restricted to only those who are resident in Samoa.

“You will not be eligible to hold that kind of title [...] if you don’t reside in Samoa,” the M.P. said.

“We have many matai of that status of title residing outside Samoa. 

“The most obvious question is [if] there [is] a requirement now for those people to come back to Samoa - [is] the law going to be retrospective?”

If the claim is true then it appears this contentious provision was only inserted into the bills after the Special Parliamentary Committee completed its public hearings, and returned to the Parliament to complete its report before its tabling.

So does this revelation explain the decision by the H.R.P.P. majority Parliament to refuse a motion by Fiame in December to discuss the Committee’s findings and to proceed to hastily pass the proposed laws in contravention of parliamentary democracy norms?

It is already remarkable that the Parliament refused to discuss the Committee’s Report, but to later find out that new provisions were added to the then legislation, which were not uttered in any of the Committee’s public hearings last year, is nothing short of dictatorial and is a slap in the face to all citizens.

And note that it is dangerous too, that the Government-of-the-day sees fit to delve into matters that would normally be considered the domain of individual families.

The position of citizens all around Samoa were eloquently expressed, when they told the Committee that they don’t accept the Government’s attempts to place a limit on the matai sa’o, and wanted those provisions removed from the final bills. 

And here we are, close to a month after the bills’ enactment, and the people are told that the new laws have provisions that restrict the bestowal of the matai sa’o to only those who are resident in Samoa.

The leader of Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party, La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Schmidt, says the new provisions are wrong and amounts to the Government dictating family affairs. 

“That’s something that shouldn’t be done at all,” La’auli told the Samoa Observer. “It gives a lot of restrictions to families. 

“Many of the matai who have been [... helping their] families [...] have been doing work from overseas.”

As if the appeal from the public wasn’t enough, on the need to remove proposed limitations on the bestowal of the matai sa’o, and now revelations on the Government inserting provisions that restrict this to only residents.

The people have the right to feel cheated on by a Government that espouses to represent their interest, in relation to how it has handled these laws through the legislative process until their passing. 

Opposition Members of Parliament, four of whom provided the solitary votes against the condemned suit of legislation last December, warned last year of conflict in the community triggered by the new laws and this is an unwanted path that the country could go down if the Government is not careful.

We love new year surprises but not these ones that are a kick in the guts, especially when it concerns aiga and the stability that it provides to every man, woman and child in Samoa.

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