A Parliamentary Playground

The six-week extended series in our Samoan Game of Thrones came to a head this week with some memorable, verbal spats in Parliament.

The personal attacks, sanctimonious side-stepping and disregard for Parliamentary rules have made for sensational listening and viewing, but at what price?

The lack of respect shown from one Member to the other, especially in the hallowed chambers of the Legislative Assembly, is not archetypical of leaders who prefix their decision-making with fealty to Christianity. 

At the core of these disagreements is power.

Those who have it - Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.), and those who want it – Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.)

A growing opposition to the ruling party has begun to fight back, in action and words, with a series of community consultations.

For all intents and purposes, these ‘roadshows’ are very similar to the Government’s consultations for district development plans that were rolled out in previous years.

Seems harmless enough.

But while F.A.S.T. was out there on the open road, preaching their prayers for change; the ruling party members were scoffing on the sidelines, kept company by their laurels, upon which they were sitting.

The opposing group of Parliamentarians, and a hefty list of election candidates, has managed to sing their song of defiance against government for several months now.

What is interesting to see is the F.A.S.T. quartet of Fiame Naomi Mataafa, Laauli Leuatea Schmidt, Olo Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong continuing to flout the rules despite the harsh criticism they have faced over the last few weeks.

Failing to attend Parliament’s sessions and instead attending their roadshow tour in Savaii for two weeks. Skipping a session this week to travel to Manono Island to campaign. Openly ignoring the Speaker of the House’s instructions and persisting with their political messaging.

These are all tame, in comparison to some other nations. We are, after all, still one of if not the most stable nation in the Pacific.

At the very least we should be grateful there have been no physical altercations or real threats of grave violence.

But as we have so often heard, violence can be emotional, mental and verbal.  

A Washington Post story on legislative violence outlined causes for these kinds of breakdowns.

“A credible commitment problem occurs when conflicting sides are not able to make the other side believe that they will actually stick to an agreement…”

The story says there are two bad situations that would make it difficult to commit to peaceful agreement:

“When the sides are bargaining over future power and when power is changing because of some outside reason.”

Firstly, although Samoa’s situation is mild in comparison to some of the more violent exchanges in Parliaments across the world, it still raises eyebrows because of the current inability by both H.R.P.P and F.A.S.T. to come to any peaceful agreement or compromise. However, it is pre-election season and you can usually expect a bloody battle or two between houses.

Secondly, the outside power. This is quite clearly our diaspora.

The message truly hits home with this observation:

“…if one legislative faction is pushing for laws that will help them win future elections, they won’t want to restrain their power.

“Moreover, broader changes in society – say, demographic changes – may mean that a party will soon have dominant majority. This also gives them an incentive to fight rather than bargain.”

In our estimation, this is why F.A.S.T. has been calling for a change, and not just a small change, but a total overhaul.

And of course, this is why the H.R.P.P. is scrambling to discredit their opponents’ efforts, while clumsily showcasing their own achievements.

The descent in to playground antics is a strange conflation of complacency and resistance.

The ruling party has enjoyed an entire Parliamentary term of little to no resistance on what they deem necessary for good governance.

The most recent, and possibly most high-profile in a decade, is the controversial package of laws – Land and Titles Act 2020, Constitution Amendment Act 2020 and the Judicature Amendment Act 2020 – passed last December.

These laws have polarized the nation, creating an opportunity for serious doubt to creep in to the people’s trust in Government.

A high-level defection by former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa has legitimized the movement for a real opposition party.

Prior to that, Laauli’s efforts to establish his opposition party had been met with lazy sarcasm and minor concern.

The political nous to embrace the desperation of our diaspora, and weaponize it against the ruling party is key to understanding how F.A.S.T. has managed to build a support base so quickly. And one that appears to rival the powerful incumbents.

By bringing their campaign to villages, F.A.S.T. has also bridged that gap between the diaspora (so long dismissed by the H.R.P.P.) and the local communities.

A growing opposition to government’s decision-making, especially in relation to the package of laws that will change judicial process, has found its form in F.A.S.T.

And what becomes of a more vocal, empowered opposition?

Louder, more vocal supporters.

The disgraceful language and blind fidelity shown by online supporters of F.A.S.T. isn’t so much a reflection of their upbringing, as it is a reflection of who they are right now. They are empowered to speak out, as their would-be leaders have been speaking out.

Referring back to the Washpo study, the problems associated with legislative violence are likely to occur in two kinds of countries.

“The first is countries with very disproportionate electoral systems. High disproportionality means that one side could have much more power than they currently do if the electoral laws were changed.

“Second, brawls are more likely in newer legislatures – where institutional norms might not have had time to develop… older democratic systems are much less likely to experience a legislative brawl.”

Samoa’s Government is almost 60 years old.

Amidst the furies of political campaigning, opponent sledging, self-promotion and preaching for votes, there is still the understanding that for almost six decades we have managed to govern ourselves fairly respectably.

Why? Because despite the turmoil, political games and changes to ruling parties, we have always managed to respect each other.

You can still see this with many M.P.s who spend substantial time in Parliament arguing and registering their disapproval against a fellow M.P., only to see them laughing and joking together at the close of the session.

So it’s prudent to wait it out and see what the season finale has in store for us. Will it be the end of an era, the start of a new dynasty? Or a plot twist we never saw coming?

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