Disregard for democracy runs deep

The take-no-prisoners world of American politics has a particularly insulting term for a national leader who, while still in office, already feels his legitimacy and power ebbing away from them.

Whether by agreeing to step down, having lost an election, or being legally unable to contest another, the phenomenon of the “lame duck” President is not more complex than its name suggests.

With an end-date stamped on their leadership, the extent of their ability to influence national politics is best compared to that of an injured water bird. They may still be able to attract attention by squawking but their power and legitimacy has largely ebbed away from their office and onto the next occupants.

The concept is most famous in the United States of America. There, election cycles can drag on for so long that second-term Presidents often have the label forced upon them by the public and media only a couple of years after an election. 

We believe it is a sad reflection on the frenzied pace of modern politics that the promises of tomorrow can undercut potential reforms in the here and now. 

But that being said, a version of the lame duck Prime Ministeris a feature common to all successful democracies, albeit with less belittling names attached. 

The principle of a “caretaker Government'' reflects precisely these values. Ministers whose Governments were defeated in elections agree to keep the seat warm for their successors; responding, if needed, should emergencies arise but almost entirely refraining from making major policy decisions. 

The constitutions of most of the world’s most successful democracies do not spell out these restrictions on the extent to which caretaker Governments can take decisions for themselves. Instead they are upheld by convention and a reliance honour of the elected Members of Parliament who believe in the spirit of democracy.

And that system works. From the moment an election is called and until a new Parliament is sworn-in, politicians, a class of people not known for being true to their word, almost always abide by caretaker conventions.

Examples are not difficult to come by, even from some of the most intensely political and divisive figures of modern political history.

When the 2008 Global Financial Crisis shook the world and threatened to upend global markets between Barack Obama’s election to the White House and his swearing in as President, sitting President George W. Bush realised that the country’s response was not his decision to make. He convened an open summit inviting his political opponents to develop a strategy for responding to the crisis until President Obama took office. 

But here in Samoa there is no such thing - literally and figuratively.

It is difficult to reconcile news that the Court of Appeal ruled in Wednesday that what had been known as the “caretaker” Government and the man known as the “caretaker Prime Minister” were being unlawfully occupied. The court ruled the Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party had been the rightful leaders of Samoa for the past two months.

So what happens to the decision made over the past more than 50 days which seemingly have no legal grounding but have left taxpayers and citizens of Samoa carrying the consequences. 

How are we meant to take this with news that the Government is entering into major commitments such as the fact that the “caretaker” (read: former) Minister of Commerce, Industry and Labour, Charles Lautafi Sio Purcell has been steering the arrival of a newly-leased Samoa Airways jet onto our shores in what was presumably a deal negotiated after the 9 April election.

The deal did not come cheap either, with a five-year lease signed at a rate of USD$250,000 a month for the plane being leased.

F.A.S.T. have committed to conducting a complete and transparent review of the airline’s finances once it takes office.

Would it have signed off on such a lease at a time such as this, when global tourism is a tiny fraction of what it was? It seems unlikely. 

This is one of several commitments made that serve to remind us that the party that lost the 9 April election has been making decisions in our name for some time now when, the court has ruled, they lacked the authority to do so.

The toothpaste is out of the tube now and it is going to be very difficult to put it back in if Samoa wants to preserve its reputation in the global business community. 

It provides just another small  example of the disregard for democracy that has permeated our politics for the last three months and reminds us who pays for it.

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