An independent Parliament good for democracy

By The Editorial Board 22 October 2021, 11:53PM

A change of government after a general election, to bring to an end close to four decades of a political party’s dominance, opens the door to new opportunities which could leave a lasting legacy on Samoa’s democracy. 

These could include legislative reforms to consolidate the independence of our different arms of government, ensuring that our adherence to the principle of the separation of powers is reinforced so each branch keeps the other in check, maintaining critical checks and balances when it comes to the exercising of powers.

Sadly, we don’t have to look far for evidence of one arm of a government in a frivolous attempt to usurp the powers of the other. Just a couple of months ago the caretaker administration under the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) attempted to illegally hold onto power, disregarding the intervention by the Supreme Court and later the Court of Appeal. 

Thankfully, common sense finally prevailed after the Court of Appeal’s historical judgement on 23 July 2021, which declared the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) the legitimate government of Samoa.

Three months after the Court’s installation of the new administration, we hear the Cabinet is looking at a policy that would make the Legislative Assembly financially independent of the Prime Minister, who is the head of the executive arm of government.

The overall objective of this reform being promulgated by the F.A.S.T. Government is to protect the independence of Samoa’s Parliament.

An article in the Friday 22 October 2021 edition of the Samoa Observer (Budget overhaul would secure Parliament’s independence) revealed how the Cabinet is seeking advice on how existing processes for the formulation of the Parliament’s budgets could be reformed in order to keep out interference by the Prime Minister and the executive arm of the government.

Cabinet Minister Toelupe Poumulinuku Onesemo, whose ministerial portfolio covers the Legislative Assembly, confirmed the discussions in the Cabinet.

“We talk about the separation of powers and this is part of ensuring that the three pillars are fully independent,” he said.

“The budget is not independent because it has to go through [the]  M.O.F. [Ministry of Finance] but the operation of the office is handled by the Speaker which is independent.” 

According to Toelupe, there are parliaments in other countries that are able to process their budgets independently without worrying about being influenced by another arm of the government.

“If those countries are able to do it to ensure the separation of powers then I don’t see why we can’t walk that talk made by the executive,” he added. 

We welcome this initiative by the new Government to further strengthen one of the core foundations of our democracy: parliament. 

As a newspaper we have over the years chronicled the deterioration of our Legislative Assembly’s independence and seen first hand how the H.R.P.P. used its numbers on the floor of the parliament to bulldoze legislation, by-passing critical legislative processes that would have enabled proper scrutiny of the bills prior to their enactment.

It was an ugly sight in the last parliamentary term that saw the few opposition voices to government-sponsored legislation curtailed or unbelievably sanctioned through motions, which in mature democracies would have amounted to an abuse of parliamentary privilege by the former ruling party.

Such as controversial amendments to the Electoral Act 2019, which the previous HRPP government championed, but had to go back before the parliament last year based on the request of the Office of the Electoral commission. This was due to conflicting interpretations of the law at that time.

And there is H.R.P.P. government’s Lands and Titles Court (LTC) suite of bills – the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020, Land and Titles Bill 2020 and the Judicature Bill 2020 – which the last parliament passed in December last year removing Supreme Court oversight over the L.T.C. to ultimately restructure the judiciary, overlooking local and international condemnation.

The last government’s use of its dominant numbers in the House to rush through the L.T.C. Bills without proper parliamentary scrutiny, despite its ramifications on human rights and the rule of law, was perhaps one of the most anti-democratic acts by a Samoan government of the day. 

The last government was not ever held accountable by the XVI Legislative Assembly over the five-years of its term, consequently the House foregoing its core responsibility of holding a government to account for the benefit of the people.

So it makes sense for the new Government to go down that path to build and reinforce the independence of the Parliament after years of abuse by the previous ruling party. 

In fact the bad precedents set by the previous administration, in terms of parliamentary procedure and practice when it came to debates and the introduction of new bills on the floor of the parliament, could have become normalised if a H.R.P.P. administration had returned to power after the general election.

There is no doubt our people have lost respect in their House and how one party used it like a rubber stamp of dodgy and draconian legislation that did not serve the people’s interest in recent years.

Now is the time to restore that respect in the Parliament and introducing reforms that would make the House independent of the executive government would go a long way in giving citizens pride, self-belief and confidence in our democracy.

By The Editorial Board 22 October 2021, 11:53PM
Samoa Observer

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