Talk of 'treason' divisive, troubling: historian

The Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry into four outspoken M.P.s this week has Samoan historian and governance expert Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea anxious about events to follow during the election campaign. 

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Leasiolagi said ordering a Commission of Inquiry into the four hopeful opposition politicians, who ceased to be M.P.s when Parliament was dissolved on Wednesday, is an attempt to draw out conflict through the election season and into the next Parliament. 

On Tuesday night in the final moments of the 16th Legislative Assembly’s term, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Maliegaoi said an independent inquiry should investigate whether the four Members violated Parliamentary standing orders and by doing so had committed treason.

The motion was seconded, and a Commission of Inquiry made up of three senior legal minds has three months to report back their findings on former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa, former Speaker Laauli Leauta Schmidt, Independent Member Olo Fiti Vaai, and former Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) member Faumuina Wayne Fong.

Leasiolagi said the move is an overreaction to disagreements and alternative points of view between Members of Parliament.

“If the Prime Minister thinks that these four people’s behaviour is treasonous and serious enough to warrant a Commission of Inquiry then that is a terrible misuse of that particular tool of Government, in my opinion,” he said.

“If there was any breach of standing orders then there are ways to deal with it, I am sure, instead of having a Commission of Inquiry.”

The four Members of Parliament are accused of breaching standing orders on Parliament attendance in order to run election campaign programmes for the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) Party around the country.

They are also accused of misleading the public on development projects and committing “treasonous” acts.

According to the Prime Minister, the Commission of Inquiry will be conducted by a retired Judge, the Ombudsman and a private senior lawyer who will have three months to submit a report to the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly. 

By launching the inquiry with little more than a month to go until the election, Leasiolagi said Tuilaepa is possibly purposefully creating an explosive pre-election atmosphere.

“It’s also the end of the session. It’s when people should split up in a more collegial atmosphere as ex-Members of Parliament. But […] this is a wish to continue the divisiveness that exists - and maybe that is what he wants - onto what remains of the campaign and probably even into the new Parliament.

“It’s a bridge that he has built into order to make sure that the issues from this Parliament [continue].

“It will set the tone for the rest of the campaign, and I can imagine people from H.R.P.P. calling those four people treasonous because the Prime Minister has said so and that will not go over well for the relations between individuals and families in the political allies and districts.   

“It could set up a very tense and explosive atmosphere during the rest of the campaign period.”

Leasiolagi, who is an Adjunct Professor and the Director of the Centre for Samoan Studies, is among the leading academics on Samoa’s political and cultural history.

He said in the nearly 60 years of Samoa’s independence, this will be the first time the Commission of Inquiry has been used this way.

Even when the public service strike of 1971 led to the ousting of a government and the arrival of the Human Rights Protection Party into power, such a move has never been made, he said.

He worries using the word ‘treason’ is provocative and said Tuilaepa is not choosing his words carefully.

“This is the first time since independence that this kind of impatience has been demonstrated by the Government. We are almost 60 years old and this level of intolerance doesn’t say that we have grown politically.

“I would like to think it’s just politicking but using words like that is really very provocative. Not only legally, but also politically and it will probably provoke a lot of anger and anxiety within society. 

“I’m personally very anxious and worried about the use of the word, especially as it’s only used in the context of the differences in opinions and differences in points of views about what is happening.

“For me, that kind of disagreement is normal, but if somebody says that if you disagree and spread false rumours that is treasonous, that is a bit much.”

According to the Parliament sitting summary for the Tuesday evening session, Tuilaepa ordered a Commission of Inquiry to: 

“a) to investigate and determine whether the 4 Members (Laauli Polataivao Fosi Schmidt, Fiame Naomi Mataafa, Olo Fiti Afoa Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong breached Standing Orders by:

 i. not attending Parliamentary sittings between the period Jan 19 to 2 March 2021 upon grounds that were not justified (S.O. 23 and S.O.24);
ii. not taking into account the times for sittings stipulated under S.O. 24 (3) and (4);
 iii. making defamatory and misleading statements on different media outlets putting Government and Parliament into disrepute (Standing Order 14 and 15)- alleged treacherous act.

b) Members of the Commission consists of:

i. retired Justice;
ii. Ombudsman; and an
 iii. Independent senior lawyer.

“The Commission to report back to the Clerk in 3 months upon receipt of the instructions from Parliament. Clerk to report back to the 17th Parliamentary term for proper remedy against the alleged accused members. Motion seconded and approved.”

*This story has been updated to accurately reflect the composition of the commission. 

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