Twisting court's words politics at its most crooked

The man most likely to assume the leader's role should caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi ever decide to make good on his recent allusions to “taking a rest” still has quite a bit to learn. 

Fonotoe Pierre Lauofo, the Deputy Leader of the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.), made one of the most basic political mistakes when being interviewed by Pulotu Canada Alofa by assuming that the cameras had stopped rolling. 

Many a novice politician has been caught by switching off their carefully curated public personas and giving an audience an insight into their true selves after assuming that microphones were no longer running. 

After the interview, Fonotoe removed his earphones and placed them on a table in front of him, apparently ignorant of the fact that microphones, not headphones, are responsible for recording sound. 

He then came forth with his honest assessment of the interview he had just undertaken with Pulotum who, along with his audience could hear him say: “Oka le fiapoko” or “wow, what a know-it-all.” 

When the Samoa Observer caught up with the senior H.R.P.P. figure on Monday he said: “The interview was finished.”

Oh no it wasn’t. 

Many interviews spent smiling tightly and answering politely have been undone by mistakes such as these.

Whether there will be any consequences for Fonotoe’s conduct depends on the outcome of a complaint lodged with the Samoan Law Society

But while his insult seeking to belittle a thoroughly non-partisan and independent journalist provided an objectionable window into Fonotoe’s disregard for the press, the exchange leading up to it was arguably more indicative of a problem.

“Good luck to whomever the woman who is going to be the sixth woman in Parliament because it could be one from H.R.P.P. or it could be the one from F.A.S.T. political party,” Pulotu said, correctly interpreting the subtleties of the Appeal Court’s recent decision on the matter of the sixth woman M.P. that has loomed so large over Samoa’s politics for the past two months. 

Fonotoe’s reply gave us a clue to what was evidently the source of his soon-to-be-revealed irritation: “Well the Electoral Commissioner already did the maths and it’s going to be an H.R.P.P. woman.”

There is no plainer way to put this: that statement is untrue.

The H.R.P.P. candidate nominated for the seat by the Electoral Commissioner and announced via social media, Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuuau, had her warrant of election voided by the court.

And the Court of Appeal, the highest legal authority in the land, could not have been clearer about the fact that who might fill a sixth seat - or even if doing so was necessary - was a matter that could not be determined at this time.

“A plain interpretation of [the constitutional mandate for 10 per cent of women M.P.s- provides that the appointment can only be triggered after the final results [of the election] are known, and this point is reached when the results of the electoral petitions and by-elections, if any, are known” the court ruled. 

“We do not attribute to Parliament the intention that the additional member can be appointed at any time the Electoral Commissioner deems appropriate, there is no basis for such a discretion where Parliament has clearly set out the conditions by which an additional member is to be added.”

“We consider that this is a principled way by which [the relevant constitutional article] can be triggered, rather than an ad hoc snapshot moment in time approach, which appears to have been adopted by the [Electoral] Commissioner.”

The case arose from what was, few would disagree, a very messily drafted constitutional provision that could be interpreted in several ways. 

In fact the seemingly contradictory nature of a clause that explicitly prescribed that five women be appointed to Parliament but was later interpreted to mean six was at the heart of the Court of Appeal case.

Acting for the Government, top New Zealand barrister Paul Rishworth Q.C. submitted that the only way for the judges to look at the law was as a “legislative error” or oversight in which one rule provides two opposite answers. 

But the book is closed on that ambiguity now. 

There is nothing unclear in the ruling handed down by the Chief Justice, His Honour Satiu Simativa Perese, Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala-Warren and Justice Fepuleai Ameperosa Roma presided over the matter, at the start of this month. 

It is also patently clear to anyone with the most elementary knowledge of how Government in Samoa works, that the Court of Appeal’s words are final. There are no further objections. They delivered their last word. 

And yet Fonotoe, a trained lawyer himself, was putting about what appeared to be disinformation about the court’s findings.

For one thing, the court provided absolutely no certainty as to which party an additional seat would go to (if the extra seat provision needed to be acted upon at all).

He also stated that it is the Electoral Commissioner who has “done the maths” and come to the conclusion about who will run Samoa. 

Fonotoe should or does know better. The ruling expressly states that the Electoral Commissioner’s interpretation is incorrect. And to place a decision made by his office on par with the highest court in the land is simply laughable.

But it follows a trend, not just by Fonotoe, but by political players across Samoa seeking to put words in the court’s mouth in order to lend support to a view of politics that is favourable to their own political interests.

This is highly disrespectful to Samoa’s highest legal authority. And it has to stop.

The wilful misinterpretation of the court’s judgment has been evident throughout this legal crisis as one side of politics, the H.R.P.P. does all it can to remain “custodians” of the Government.

Tuilaepa was only last month in a hurry for Parliament to sit, citing the need for the forthcoming budget to be passed into law. But at that stage he was advocating for holding a second national election.

Now his official position appears to be that Parliament cannot sit or be sworn in until the vast amount of electoral petitions are dealt with by the Supreme Court. 

Except - that is - if an additional H.R.P.P.-aligned M.P. aligned woman (ideally the one whose election to parliament had just been torn up by the Appeal Court) be allowed to sit in Parliament, removing the possibility for a F.A.S.T. party majority. Under these conditions, recent talks between the two political rivals were said to have revealed, Tuilaepa said he would be happy for Parliament to convene - and soon.

Fonotoe, for his part, earlier said that he sees no obstacle to Parliament sitting but said that a “constitutional Government” could only be formed after the post-election legal challenges were being dealt with, again ignoring the fact that the H.R.P.P. has a numbers deficit on the floor of Parliament following the election.

It is difficult to find any reason or consistency in the political gymnastics our country’s leaders are performing; the only consistent principle followed is the raw drive to maintain of power. 

But it is not just the court being disrespected that makes this behaviour so contemptible. It is taking advantage of the already weary people of Samoa.

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