The war of words between the lone Opposition voice in Parliament, Olo Fiti Vaai, and the Minister of Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, over the state of the government’s financial affairs has been interesting to follow.
Whether you and I agree or not, the issue being debated is important and we believe we should all take notice.
This is for the simple fact that Samoa does not belong to a person or a political party. Samoa belongs to all of us – you, me and our aiga – including the thousands of Samoans residing abroad. Which means that if the government is in financial strife, as Olo claims, we need to be aware.
For the uninitiated, last week, Olo claimed the government was so “financially desperate” their last resort is to tax the Head of State and the Church Ministers.
He also questioned the accuracy of figures provided by the Ministry of Finance.
“Why are we levying taxes against the church ministers if the figures are accurate that the surplus is in millions? Why do we need to add anymore burden onto the public?” Olo asked.
The Member of Parliament pointed out that it’s members of the public who end suffering as a result.
“This word faifeau is just a cover when the reality is that it’s the public that is paying for the taxes. It’s not their money, so they don’t care about their salary being taxed because it’s the public that is being taxed again.”
Olo insisted that the government is desperate for money.
“I didn’t think our government was that desperate,” he said. “When I looked at the surplus that is collected from last year and this year, it’s more than $30million.”
“And yet they intend to add more taxes, they are looking at adding taxes on alcohol. Then there’s church ministers the government wants to tax. That is how desperate they are. Now I didn’t know it was this bad.”
Going back to the taxing if Church Ministers, Olo said anyone who can read between the lines would know it is literally an increase of the V.A.G.S.T.
“They are taxing the faifeau, but who is providing the money for the peleki and the alofa? It’s the public, that’s how I look at it. They just front the faifeau’s name yet it’s the public that is paying for it and it’s literally an increase of the V.A.G.S.T.”
Olo has a point. In fact, some churches have already indicated that on top of the offering, they will pay the church minister’s tax. Which means Olo is correct that it is members of the public who end up shouldering the costs. And that affects you, me and everyone.
The Minister of Revenue Tialavea Tionisio Hunt disagrees.
“That is wrong,” he responded. “If the Ministry of Revenue did not reach our annual goals in terms of revenues collections, the government would be desperate for money. But that is not the case.”
So why does the government need more taxes from members of the public?
“Twenty-eight MP’s addressed Parliament about the needs and wants of their Districts. Twenty of them asked for financial assistance for the projects in their Districts.”
“If these lawmakers do not ask the government for money to fund their projects, why would the government propose for these additional revenue measures?”
Tialavea also pointed to the irony in politics. He said Members of Parliament always request for developments and yet when the government comes up with policies to facilitate such developments, they complain.
“So where can the government get money to fund these projects?” he asked.
“You want better roads, good quality water, if you’re sick you want to seek off island medical treatment, yet when proposals to gain funds are submitted you complain.”
“The government is not desperate, it’s the districts that are desperate.”
Okay then Mr. Minister but where do the districts belong to?
And who is responsible for the districts then?
Is that not the responsibility of the government? And can the government not find any other way of generating revenue other than extracting more taxes from people who have already been taxed to the bone?
When we talk about the government’s desperation, we cannot ignore the issue of the foreign debt. There is no denying the fact that it’s an uncomfortable topic, one many of us would rather not think about.
But we believe it’s important to discuss what’s happening, understand the implications and be open about ideas on a way forward.
Over the years, international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have issued numerous warnings to Samoa in relation to our external debt.
In 2013 for example, the Bank warned that Samoa’s public external debt was “high-risk” and that the government was in danger of breaching policy limits they had previously agreed to.
But that wasn’t all. Not long ago, the Bank also warned about “debt distress” where public loans would exceed 56 per cent of economic activity each year. That, we believe, is already the case. So what is the government doing about these warnings? Does it care at all?
As far as we are aware, Prime Minister Tuilaepa has on a number of occasions assuaged fears about the issue, saying there is nothing to be alarmed about.
According to Tuilaepa, it is not the amount of a country’s debt that its leaders should be worried about. Rather, it is a country’s ability to service the debt. And in Samoa’s case, he assured that Samoa’s debt service capacity is strong, saying the country is generating more than enough revenue to sustain the debt.
Fair enough! But here’s what boggles the mind. If what Tuilaepa is saying is true, then why on earth does Samoa need to continue to borrow more millions?
Why has our foreign debt ballooned from $15million when the H.R.P.P came into power to close to $2billion today?
If this country has so much money, as the Prime Minister claims, why then is the cost of living so ruthlessly expensive? And why are people being punished through the ridiculous cost of electricity and other basic utilities?
Why is there so much poverty and hardship in Samoa today? What about those children begging on the streets of Samoa? What do they tell us?
And now they are taxing God’s representatives on earth, that does sound desperate, doesn’t it?
Tell us what you think!