Monday, May 24, 2021

Lessons from Samoa

Samoa's parliament was meant to meet this morning, on the last possible day following their elections in April, to swear in MPs, elect a Speaker, and demonstrate where confidence lies. Instead, the HRPP's former Speaker - who retired at the election and is no longer an MP - took the keys and locked the new parliament out of the building. This is expected to be used by the HRPP as "justification" for new elections: "parliament couldn't meet (because we stopped it), a government couldn't form (because we refused to recognise it), so time for the people to correct their error and endorse us again".

There are no doubt lawyers arguing in the Supreme Court right now to get an explicit order upholding the constitutional requirement that parliament meet today (or just to determine who is Speaker and how far their power under the Legislative Assembly Powers and Privileges Ordinance 1960 extends). Based on the court's previous rulings, there's some hope for a peaceful and democratic outcome. OTOH, with the former government simply refusing to accept the results of elections and nakedly defying court orders, that may be too much to hope for.

What lessons can we draw from this? People often say that New Zealand needs a written constitution (as if our Constitution Act and BORA and other legislation didn't exist), or at the least, that we should nail down more of the current "unwritten" powers in statute to prevent abuses. I support the latter position, because its always useful to know what the rules are. But that's exactly what Samoa did - their constitution eliminated the reserve powers, and specifically enumerated the head of states powers to call and dismiss parliament and the circumstances in which that could happen. And none of that helped. The problem in Samoa isn't that constitutional powers are unclear, giving scope for disagreement, but that the HRPP are wilfully ignoring them, and ignoring the courts when they do their duty to interpret the constitution.

What ultimately protects democracy is not just clear constitutions - that helps, but the USA is a perpetual counterexample - but politicians actually being democrats, and respecting democracy and the rule of law. Samoa's problem is that the HRPP, or at least its leadership, don't (and this has been clear for a while, with their constant attempts to prevent other parties from forming to challenge them, and to bring the judiciary under their thumb). Instead, Tuilaepa is basicly a Pacific Trump. And once that poison is in your system, you need to excise it quickly, before it infects everything. Hopefully Samoa is up to the job.