The virtues of boring Government
The very idea of a new Government promises a world of infinite possibilities.
Many Samoans are excited about what the next five years may hold and understandably so. A break from more than two decades of uninterrupted rule alone is in and of itself a political development rich with possibilities for change.
But achieving progress of any substance will require a new approach to governance from the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party,
We should ask ourselves, is the political party that is barely one year old up to the task of governing Samoa? What will a F.A.S.T. Government look like?
One noticeable feature of the F.A.S.T. party is the lack of political experience in its ranks. This is either a virtue or a liability depending on your view of the culture of Government in Samoa.
With the notable exception of its leader, Fiame Naomi Mataafa, who has been in Cabinet under two different Prime Ministers since the early ‘90s, there is not one F.A.S.T. legislator who has served a full term as a Cabinet Minister.
That will matter, especially this week, as the Government seeks to stamp its authority on the public service and, as all new administrations must, build legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
But we do not think that the relative lack of experience within F.A.S.T.’s ranks, after rule by a party in which power was centralised in the hands of one man , will be to its detriment.
Fiame is, after all, ably supported by a cast of advisers who have intricate knowledge of how Samoa’s machinery of Government works and can be reoriented.
While he never served out his full term in Cabinet as the Minister for Agriculture, the party’s deputy, La'auli Leuatea Schmidt, a former Speaker, is well known for his knowledge of Parliamentary procedure and political nous.
He comes from political stock with deep family connections to the Human Rights Protection Party’s (H.R.P.P.) foundation and while inside that party's tent was regarded as a highly skilled tactician. Testament to his ability to read the public’s mood is the fact that it was his initiative to start F.A.S.T. that so improbably brought down the reign of the 22-year Government of Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi.
Also on F.A.S.T. 's side are people, though not likely to be drafted into formal positions, are advisors such as Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, the nation’s most experienced Attorney-General and the architect of the initially-mocked legal tactic - or ‘tent event’ - that brought the party to power.
So far the Government has wasted no time in stamping its authority on the governing process and with these and other advisors outside the party, it is unlikely to encounter difficulties in doing so.
The public service, almost entirely unaccustomed to the process of a transition to a new Government, was put on notice the day after the Court of Appeal handed down its judgement in a meeting with Cabinet that set the process of transition immediately in motion.
Chief among the short-term political priorities of the new administration will be securing funds for its operations and it has signalled its intent to secure one-quarter of normal expenditure under emergency provisions in the constitution as a stop-gap until it has had the chance to examine the state of the nation’s financial position - something that was previously kept closely held by the previous Government.
There are other issues to be decided upon, such as how to treat the H.R.P.P. members who did not show up to what now has become the official swearing in of the new Government.
But for her outspoken belief in the power of a strong opposition in creating good governance, we expect a means to be found to have the remaining 18 H.R.P.P. M.P.s - whose elections has not been declared void by post-election legal challenges - enter Parliament.
But these are small time issues. What can we expect in the long-term from a F.A.S.T. Government?
We expect dullness. And we mean it as a compliment; in fact, we hope for it.
First and foremost achieving any of its policy priorities will require securing revenue from the nation’s battered economy that has contracted by 10 per cent for two years running.
F.A.S.T.’s policy manifesto was, according to Fiame’s own admission, an approximately $1 billion document; or one roughly the value of the existing national budget,
When pressed by this newspaper as to how she hoped to realise such a platform, she acknowledged some parts of the manifesto may need to be junked in favour of tax rises or expenditure freezes.
Fiame also made a revealing comment about the amount of the budget lost to waste each and every year,
The signs of the inefficient allocation of Government resources have been obvious to even the most casual observer of Samoan politics. Government contracts have been awarded without competitive tender processes. Contracts have been given to direct relatives of Cabinet Ministers. And increases in prices of originally cheap bids for tender once a project has been won by a company have all become routine.
Fiame said the true extent of what is euphemistically referred to as the “leakage” of Government budgets is unknown and will not be uncovered until the F.A.S.T. administration has access to Government financial statements and time to analyse them.
But credible sources within the Government have estimated that as much as one-third of the nation’s budget is lost through such misdirection.
Identifying areas where the Government’s coffers are being wasted through inefficiencies or misdirection of funding and closing the loopholes that allow them to be so will be an essential first step.
As part of the change of Government culture we expect Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa to be a far less dramatic presence on the national stage than her predecessor who often loomed large over national debate with bombastic statements.
We hope Fiame is a Prime Minister with a lower profile altogether.
Reports from inside the Cabinet of Tuilaepa suggested he asserted his authority on issues ranging from issues of minor procurement to senior bureaucratic appointments
Micro-managing leaders who assert their power this way create a policy bottleneck or the political equivalent of a traffic jam that slows down the speed with which policy can be rolled out.
We expect the new Government to restore a truly Cabinet-style form of administration in which Ministers are given the freedom to develop expertise in their portfolio and develop solutions to problems accordingly, rather than having power centralised in the hands of the Prime Minister.
Such an approach makes for lesser theatrics but better Government.
Looking at the big picture, our nation is not short of pressing problems, particularly in the key areas of health and education.
We are persistently dogged by the issue of teacher quality and the knock-on effect of poor levels of student’s education.
International research has found that Samoan students’ performance on basic measures of literacy and numeracy has plummeted. So too has the rate at which students are completing secondary school; in just two years, between 2016 and 2018, the proportion of students completing their secondary education fell from 71.4 per cent to 35.95 per cent,
Attempts to raise teacher quality have not proven an effective remedy. A teacher upgrade programme has not improved educational outcomes while overburdening the National University of Samoa. Last year the number of students who passed their S.S.L.C. exams to gain entry into university fell by 8.5 percentage points when compared to 2017.
Finally, the health of our nation must sit atop the Government’s agenda. We are a sick nation. Non-communicable diseases, as they are known in medical jargon, such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and even cancer have skyrocketed in Samoa over the past two decades. According to the World Health Organisation some 70-80 per cent of our adult population are afflicted with such conditions.
Despite this, we have only two publicly available pathology services and four radiology services and access to essential services ranging from the country’s often broken M.R.I. scanner all the way down to the availability of simple health measures such as cholesterol checks are frequently interrupted by broken equipment or a lack of supply.
The failings of the country;s vaccination programme has been well documented by this newspaper, as it dropped, inexplicably from 2014 to date. We saw the fatal effects of this in the 2019 measles crisis.
Now we are seeing it again with the outbreak of a rotavirus pandemic. Several of our Pacific neighbours have been routinely vaccinating children against the often fatal disease for the better part of a decade; our first batch of vaccinations arrived last week.
Systematically addressing these lapses is what the nation desperately needs. Some areas of obvious policy neglect will be easily remedied and improve lives; others are wicked problems with complicated causes whose cure is not obvious.
But at this stage of the nation’s development the best way we can combat them is to return to the basics Government. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the incoming F.A.S.T. administration is the chance to make Government boring again.