Inquiry in search of a purpose is a dangerous thing

By The Editorial Board 03 March 2021, 11:20PM

Commissions of Inquiry are an expensive use of public resources and tie up taxpayer resources for significant periods of time. 

Besides, there is no point drawing on the public purse to investigate a question to which everyone already knows the answer. 

Inquiries are also often cloaked in the rhetoric of serving the public interest but can be used as political playthings.

These are, of course, not our own words but direct paraphrases of those of the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi when he rejected calls for a national inquiry into the 2019 measles epidemic.

How surprising, then, it was to read on the front page of Wednesday’s edition of the Samoa Observer that the Prime Minister appears to have changed his tune entirely (“Commission of Inquiry ordered by Prime Minister”.)

After what seemed like an interminable final session of Parliament things came to a crescendo on Wednesday.

Just prior to the resolution of the 16th Legislative Assembly the Prime Minister ordered an inquiry into the “treasonous” conduct of four opposition M.P.s 

The combination of alleged “treason” opposition M.P.s and a political inquiry should be sufficient to make the blood run cold of any student of international political history. 

Such inquiries have all too often been the raw materials for a performative process that ends with the suppression of political opposition movements by Governments turning their backs on democracy.

And, indeed, without reaching too hastily for conclusions the Prime Minister’s words are deeply concerning to us too. 

With just over a month to go until a national election, the incumbent Government ordering an inquiry into four leaders of the country’s largest opposition party is not a good look for Samoa’s democracy.

Perhaps Tuilaepa genuinely is interested in getting to the bottom of why the four M.P.s were absent during a seemingly endless final session of Parliament.

But to us, it is no mystery.

Inquiries by their very nature are designed to discover truths obscured by murky waters: allegations of bribery, unsolved deaths, schemes, and corruption. 

A perfect subject might be why the Cabinet ignored warnings from medical experts to roll out a mass vaccination campaign immediately, months before 83 lives were lost. That is something about which the Government has been totally silent and remains shrouded in secrecy. 

But these M.P.s’ political absences, and the motivations behind them, could not have been more transparent had they tried.

The M.P.s accused the Prime Minister of prolonging Parliament as a deliberate political tactic; one designed to keep them chained to the Legislative Assembly and prevent them from campaigning.

Not only was the rationale for the M.P.s made crystal clear but so too were their movements. 

The Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party with which they campaigned meticulously posted on social media precisely where they were conducting their campaign “roadshows” on any given day.

These events were well recorded in the press and they took place before hundreds of witnesses.

By ordering an inquiry for such a justification the Prime Minister makes a mockery of the very process, which has for centuries been reserved for resolving matters on which facts are contested - not agreed. 

We must ask how the Independent Committee members (a retired Judge, the Ombudsman, and a private-sector lawyer) will be exercising their minds as they prepare their report over the next three weeks. 

La’auli Leuatea Schmidt, for example, claims to have received, in writing, permission to be absent from Parliamentary sittings for two weeks.

His claim is a matter that can be resolved by a quick trip to a filing cabinet; there is no requirement here for any forensic investigation which is typically the ultimate purpose of any inquiry. 

Parliament has long-established committee processes for dealing with questions of M.P.s' indiscretions. They could have been used to censure the M.P.s in question at any time throughout this long Parliamentary session.

But that the Prime Minister should instead wait until the last day of Parliament to convene an inquiry into the conduct of M.P.s now no longer in Parliament. It is also unsettling. 

What makes us more nervous are the additional terms of reference for the inquiry, which have tended to have been obscured by the Prime Minister’s focus on the M.P.s’ absenteeism.  

“The impetus behind this motion is to protect the integrity of Parliament, which has been tarnished during the final moments of the Legislative Assembly,” Tuilaepa said on Wednesday.

But we note that opinions and statements made outside the floor of Parliament are to fall under the inquiry’s terms.

Making “false” claims against Members of Parliament on social media; holding roadshows and misleading the public in relation to development projects as well as “treasonous” acts by the four M.P.’s.

Here we lurch from what has been presented as a primarily administrative matter into one that is so broad in its scope as to be impossible to settle.

Do we expect our commissioners to sit in judgment and provide definitive answers to criticism made by opposition members who have previously drawn the Prime Minister’s ire.

Should they be expected to come to a definitive conclusion about whether or not raising or lowering the pension age - something that is not in any opposition party’s portfolio incidentally - is financially feasible?

How could they possibly? Debate on this very issue is taking place in countries across the world and fine minds are making contributions to both sides of the argument.

It appears that the Prime Minister is seeking to have his inquiry develop a Government-approved version of the truth. That the inquiry will run through the election campaign is particularly disturbing and also runs the risk of having the Government being used as a de facto campaign tool. 

Is there the prospect of commissioners recommending criminal or civil punishment for straying outside these Government lines? Now that Parliament has risen for the final time what sanctions can be raised against them as M.P.s?

Politics in a democracy is a battle of ideas. It is a game of rhetoric but also a combat sport. The referees are the voters of Samoa; not the Prime Minister.  

Parliament, too, with the exception of defamation has been a forum of free expression. Has the Government thought about appointing commissioners to fact-check recent claims by a Government M.P. that vaccinations are poisonous or that wearing protective COVID-19 masks cuts off air supply to the brain? 

We are entering very dangerous territory when we establish an inquiry to take action against Members of Parliament for expressing an opinion which does not align with the Government’s own.

The Prime Minister should revisit his past descriptions of inquiries as wasteful and purposeless political witchhunts. They could not be more applicable to his actions on Tuesday.

By The Editorial Board 03 March 2021, 11:20PM
Samoa Observer

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