‘It’s patronising’: Sāmoan PM on perceptions of island nations’ understanding of geopolitics

By Te Ao with MOANA

During Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa’s first diplomatic trip to New Zealand since being elected, the Sāmoan Prime Minister made time to sit down with Moana Maniapoto of Māori Television’s Te Ao with Moana. They talked about last year’s constitutional crisis, the country’s relationship with China, and the future of female representation in Sāmoan politics.

“Quite frankly, it’s patronising.”

That was the quick response of Sāmoan Prime Minister, Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, when asked by Moana Maniapoto about the media narrative that island nations don’t understand geopolitics when it comes to China.

“It shows that there's thinking there that the Pacific Islands are incapable of navigating the relationships,” she said.

“For us in the Pacific, we are having to steer in terms of where the major players are at. It’s not easy.”

Asked whether Sāmoans see the relationship between their nation and New Zealand as ‘cousins’ or ‘big brother,’ Fiamē paused.

“Um, well, it's layered,” she replied, before adding, “It could be ‘big brother’ in terms of geopolitical arrangements.”

'Coming around'

During her trip to Aotearoa last week, Sāmoa’s first female Prime Minister was mobbed in Māngere.

“I had to laugh ‘cos we had New Zealand security. I mean, I've got my one guy with me but once those Sāmoan women came in, they couldn't move and all I could see was people's heads!” Fiamē said.

Last year, Fiamē entered the legislative chamber with decades of parliamentary experience, and she drew on all of it in the aftermath of the 2021 elections. How hard has it been for Sāmoa to accept a new party at the helm after 40 years of rule by one party?

“I think it’s coming around.”

Fiamē has an impressive résumé. She’s been in Parliament since 1985. She was the first woman appointed to the cabinet in Sāmoa’s history. She’s served in numerous ministerial roles, including as deputy Prime Minister from 2016 to 2020.

She’s also inherited a big legacy: Both of her parents were members of Parliament and Matai (Sāmoan chiefs) themselves, with her father serving as the first prime minister of independent Samoa. Fiamē assumed her father’s matai title when she was just 20 years old.

Constitutional crisis

But this legacy does not weigh heavily on Fiamē at all.

“It is what it is,” she said matter-of-factly.

She answered questions about last year’s tumultuous election in a similarly understated-yet-frank way, describing the process as “a bit glitchy”.

It was in fact a full-blown constitutional crisis, with a tug-of-war between the executive and the judiciary that went on for months: The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) had been in power since 1982, and its leader, Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, tried to do everything in his power to reverse the election results and stop Fiamē’s Faʻatuatua i le Atua Sāmoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party from winning.

At one point, Tuila'epa even locked out the Samoan Chief Justice from the House of Parliament.

But again, Fiamē was straight yet measured when asked about her relationship with Tuila-epa (she was formerly a member of the HRPP and served alongside him when she was Deputy Prime Minister).

Confidence returning

“It’s always very cordial. I mean, we’re not bosom buddies by any means,” she said.

In May this year, Tuila’epa was permanently suspended from Parliament for breaching parliamentary privileges and for contempt of court. The Supreme Court recently declared that he and others had “damaged the fabric of Sāmoa”.

While the election and its subsequent fallout seriously tested the foundations of Sāmoa’s political system, Fiamē said people’s confidence in the system was returning.

“It was all dependent on the judiciary being able to carry out its mandate, and you know, I think they did a job: They were tested. We were all tested.”

One major aspect of the judiciary’s decision-making was over meeting the 10% quota of female representation in Parliament.

In a seemingly ironic twist, given Fiamē’s credentials as an advocate of female representation, FAST challenged a provision last year that allowed two extra women MPs to be elected during a by-election.

'Too many constituencies'

FAST argued that the 10% threshold had already been met but the Supreme Court ruled against them earlier this year, saying that two more women needed to be sworn into Parliament to meet the 10% threshold. Both women were from the opposing HRPP.

Fiamē said her issue with the increase in numbers was because, in comparison with other countries, Sāmoa’s population of 200,000 was overrepresented in Parliament, with 51 constituencies (it’s now gone up to 54).

“It’s unfortunate that it has to do with women’s representation,” she said.

Indeed, Fiamē certainly feels there’s room for improvement when it comes to the question of female representation, especially at the village level.

She said that while there is a growing number of female matai, there are still some villages that don’t allow women to sit in village council meetings.

“We see it as an evolving situation. I’m actually waiting for some brave woman to challenge it constitutionally,” she said.

Advocate for diaspora

Fiamē isn’t the first in her family to feel this way. Her mother, Laulu Fetauimalemau Mataʻafa, was well-known for her advocacy work on behalf of women.

Fiamē said her mother was among the first group of scholarship students who came to New Zealand as part of a scheme to develop human resource capability in preparation for a newly independent country.

“She also came from a chiefly family but, as a young woman, she was actually quite radical,” Fiamē said.

“And then, of course, settling back home, marrying my father, [and] then essentially channelling her thinking within the frameworks of the traditional constructs.”

Fiamē is also an advocate for Sāmoa’s overseas diaspora, and in the last election, her party campaigned for these Sāmoans to receive greater recognition for their contribution to the country.

At the moment, electoral law requires Sāmoans to live in the country for six months prior to voting, so many Sāmoans overseas were unable to participate in last year’s election.

Let them vote?

A commission of inquiry reviewing the 2021 election is looking into voting rights for Sāmoans living overseas.

But Fiamē was equivocal when asked whether there was an appetite in Sāmoa for the diaspora to be able to vote.

“In previous administrations of which I've been part of, the concerns were that the influence would be happening externally to what's happening in Sāmoa,” she said.

“There are generations of Sāmoans, and many more Sāmoans outside of the country than there are in the country… so it’s not something that is distant, it’s very much current. We cannot ignore that.”

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