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Opinion piece: One year later

Fiame Naomi Mataafa and Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. [ Getty Images ]

'The tumultuous events following last year's general election continue to ripple through the Maota Fono a Samoa.

Last week, some 13 months after Samoa went to the polls, an additional 3 women have been sworn into parliament. Flaws in the hastily drafted legislation requiring a minimum quota of 10% of the seats to be occupied by women soon unraveled when it was found that 10% of 52 seats is 6 not 5. There were several false starts as to who should occupy the additional seat given that bi-elections had not at that time been finalised. After the declaration of the bi-election results and further court challenges, it was determined that there should be 7 women. This full complement has now taken their rightful place.

The 2021 election not only exposed legislative deficiencies but relied on the courts to clarify this and other critical matters. The electoral legislation and process quite rightly needs to be revisited to ensure the position and representation of women is clear and unambiguous before 2026. Further, no one wishes to see a repeat of the political upheaval and constitutional crisis from which Samoa has just emerged.

Last week also, the Prime Minister was called before a parliamentary committee to explain the context of the so-called "harmony agreement". Essentially, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition entered into a written agreement to discontinue charges of contempt which were at the time before the court. Various senior HRPP members and supporters were subjects of these charges.

Fiame explained that this was a genuine attempt, made in good faith to discontinue the court matter. Moreover it was an attempt to enable parliament and the process of government to move on.

The charges were serious and if proven could have led to jail time, removal from parliament, further bi-elections, disbarment and certainly more political upheaval. The "agreement" sought to avoid this.

The action by the Prime Minister at the time is unusual in itself. It could have been seen by some as interference with the judicial process and a blurring of the separation of powers. However, the document sought discontinuance of proceedings as a settlement of impending court hearing. This process is available to parties in any event.

Ultimately the court rejected the request for discontinuance and found key party members and supporters guilty of scandalising the court. However, the court imposed no penalty. It appears that while the court rejected the request to discontinue charges of contempt, it did pay some regard to the context of the agreement and the intent behind it.

Recent behaviour would suggest that the leader of the opposition and the secretary of the HRPP continue to play the harmony agreement as being applicable in the parliament. In her response to the parliamentary committee, Fiame was clear in that the context of entering into the agreement related to the impending court case alone and did not extend beyond that. The "get out of jail free card"- a.k.a. the "harmony agreement"- does not extend to behaviour in parliament.

While the charges of contempt have been decided, there have been further claims. Both the opposition leader and HRPP secretary are currently being investigated by the Parliamentary Privileges and Ethics Committee over allegations of misconduct.

The leader of the opposition has scoffed at these allegations and maintains his innocence of the contempt charges despite his apology to the Court. He has also sought to embrace religious and cultural practices as justification for his behaviour.

In another situation, the Prime Minister recently moved a motion to eject a member of parliament from the house. In a heated debate the Prime Minister sought clarification of statements shouted by the offending politician and subsequently had him removed. He has since apologised and resumed his seat.

The events over the past few months and as illustrated in parliament last week, demonstrate the need for greater respect, dignity and decorum in our house of parliament. The Speaker has been challenged many times and sought to retain order and dignified behaviour. It is hoped that the greater presence of women - representing both major political parties - might bring this about.

We'll see.'



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