Policy changes: process and consultation?

Citizens’ engagement in a government’s public policy formulation through consultation and participation lies at the heart of democracy. Samoa should be no different.

In fact the ideals of democracy dictates that all citizens should be at the front and centre of all public policy interventions. Samoa’s democratic governance provides that platform to enable citizens to shape their own future.

The former Prime Minister  Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi recently raised his concerns over what he said was the lack of consultation by the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) Government when it changed a number of his administration’s policies.

The changes include the scrapping of the contentious Daylight Savings Time; the overturning of the decision to merge the Land Transport Authority’s Traffic Division with the Ministry of Police; the reviving of the Fagali’i airport; and Electoral Act amendments which reinstated polling booths for Savai’i voters from rural areas. 

In an article (“Change for change’s sake: Tuilaepa on new Govt.”) published in the Monday 04 October 2021 edition of the Samoa Observer, the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) leader described the changes as reckless.

“The way I see it, it's change for change's sake, there is no logical reason why they are making these changes, and some of these changes are not necessary hence its a reckless move,” said the former Prime Minister during a press conference last week.

Some of the policy changes needed the approval of the Legislative Assembly, argued Tuilaepa as his government had to table and pass legislation in order to give legal effect to the policies.

“The appropriate way to make amendments to any law is for it to be approved in parliament, there is no other way, but the way things are going now with the current Government doesn’t appear to be legal,” he claimed. 

The veteran politician added that the changes were made by the Government without proper consultation.

Tuilaepa is correct: changes shouldn’t be made to existing government policies for changes' sake. What has happened to proper consultation as the Opposition leader alluded to during his press conference last week?

The first stage of that consultation process should have been for his successor Fiame Naomi Mata’afa to announce her Government’s intentions to review the policies of the previous government.

All government policies have a direct and indirect bearing on the lives of the people: be transparent and begin the process of dialogue with the relevant stakeholders including the citizens themselves; collate feedback during the dialogue; and then use that data to prepare a report for the Cabinet and ultimately the parliament’s consideration.

Some of the government policies have been around for many years including over a decade, so you can imagine the wider ramifications of an immediate overnight change, such as the swift scrapping of the Daylight Savings Time Policy. 

The change by the F.A.S.T. Government caught everyone off guard and is likely to add to the cost of doing business in Samoa, which ultimately will get to be passed on to customers over the long-term.

And then there’s the contentious amendments to the Electoral Act in order to restore polling booths for Savai’i residents from rural areas so they can vote in Apia. 

Was a survey done targeting voters originally from Savai’i who were impacted negatively by the changes approved by the last parliament and now want a change because the current arrangement affects their voting rights?

We note the irony in Tuilaepa’s concerns, zooming in on the lack of stakeholder consultation, having headed the previous H.R.P.P. government. The previous administration under his tenure hasn’t been exemplary either, in terms of ticking the box on public consultation.

But as the Opposition Leader in the House he has embraced the opportunity to take the current Government to account, regardless. 

Interestingly Fiame and senior members of her F.A.S.T. party were some of the previous government’s biggest critics in terms of its handling of the controversial Lands and Titles Court Bills (L.T.C.) which the H.R.P.P. administration drafted and then used its dominance in the House to bulldoze through without proper debate in December last year.

Sadly, it appears Fiame’s Government has taken a leaf out of the playbook of the former ruling party: announcing major policy decisions recently that were abrupt and minus public consultation. 

It looked like the H.R.P.P. all over again, when they ignored public consultation when drawing up bills, and then used their dominance in the parliament to pass the draconian legislation despite widespread public opposition.

On the eve of the country’s 60th independence anniversary, the F.A.S.T. Government should appreciate the importance of consultative public forums, and acknowledge that giving citizens direct engagement in public policy making is in itself a democratic mechanism that should continue to be encouraged.

Consultation and participation ensures governments are kept accountable by the citizens and there are long-term benefits for the nation in terms of accountability, transparency, participation and social inclusion.

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