All it will take is transparency, accountability and a lot of humility to solve our problems
It’s tough being Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi.
As if telling lawyers they do not understand laws and journalists they don’t know how to write is not awkward enough, telling a former politician in Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi not to politicise matters is like putting a car in reverse gear expecting it to move forward.
Now that is awkward with a capital A. But such is the wonderful concoction of Samoan politics as we have it today. There is never a dull moment.
Come to think of it, there has not been a dull moment in Samoa for quite some time now. From the time the Government decided to take on the most powerful institution on the land in the form of the church several years ago, we have witnessed the domino effect with everything else that has followed.
Suffice to say, the issues we are dealing with today are not new. Questions about foreign debt, aid, airlines, political parties, lands and titles, judiciary, democracy, control, manipulation, corruption, issues of national identity and so forth have been bubbling for quite some time.
They have been simmering waiting for the right temperature to rise. One gets the feeling the political thermometer is slowly but surely melting. Something has got to give.
The decision by the former Head of State to come out of his shell and speak out against what he fears could cripple the nation has certainly thrown a new dynamic into the lively political atmosphere.
Indeed, Tui Atua might have been the Head of State, as he rightfully should, being a Tama Aiga but what people tend to forget is that long before, he has always been a politician. No one who is alive in Samoa today can lay claim to the honour of being a former Prime Minister, former leader of the Opposition party and a former Head of State. Tui Atua has done it and seen it all.
Which is why when he speaks, he does so with mana and authority. It commands attention and respect from within and outside Samoa. It is precisely what has happened during the past couple of weeks, regardless of what Tuilaepa and the establishment would have you and me believe.
Not that Tui Atua was blameless and without blemish. He too had his shortcomings; he had many faults just like any other human being. The one that Prime Minister Tuilaepa often and always pounces on when he is cornered is Tui Atua’s leadership in the 1980s during the Public Service Association (P.S.A) strike. Tuilaepa has got a point there and thousands of people living in Samoa today who experienced that time will remember very well. It was rough.
But that was then, this is now. We are in 2020, nearly 40 years after the fact.
And if it were true what they say about age and growing in wisdom, Tui Atua and people who were in power then, would have learnt their lessons. Such wisdom is critical to navigate this country into the future, given the mountain of challenges before us.
It is why it would be foolish for Prime Minister Tuilaepa and this nation to ignore what Tui Atua has been saying. Among the issues he has raised, his point about why the Government changed the Constitution to tax the Head of State and Church Ministers is worth revisiting.
According to Tui Atua, the real reason for the Government decision was because it is broke. During a press conference on Friday, Tui Atua recalled a meeting with the Minister of Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, when the Government first proposed the law. The Head of State queried the decision.
“So I had asked to prepare a paper to explain it further and its justification..." Tui Atua said. “After a week from that meeting [with Tialavea] representatives from the [Revenue] office came to me and apologised saying the new change is not so that everyone is treated the same but it is because there aren’t enough funds for the office for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education.”
Minister Tialavea has of course vehemently denied the claim. While he confirmed talking with Tui Atua some years ago, he told him the change was the right thing to do so that everyone in Samoa is treated equally in terms of paying tax.
Interestingly, this revives the questions raised by the Samoa Observer three years ago when this law was debated. These questions are just as relevant today as they were back in 2017.
The first question is how did we arrive at the point in 2017 where the Government suddenly needed to change the law to tax the Head of State and Church Ministers, roles that were previously considered sacred so that mere thought of taxing them was unimaginable, especially in Samoa?
The fact is for nearly sixty years after Independence, members of the clergy were not required to pay taxes on their alofa (donations they receive). The reason was easy enough to understand. The economy could obviously function without these taxes. There was obviously no financial hole the Government was under so much pressure to fill.
But with the Government’s reckless spending over the years, having racked up a massive debt no thanks to so many white elephants, this was a sign of desperation. Even the argument about everyone doing the right thing does not stack up. Is this Government now saying that all our ancestors did not do the right thing? Are they suggesting that our forebears robbed this country of taxes they should have paid? Can you imagine our forebears turning in their graves?
The second question we asked then and we will ask again today, how do we get ourselves out of this hole?
The answer, in our humble view, lies squarely in the principles of good governance where transparency and accountability are paramount. Instead of denying the state of play, Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his administration should come clean and tell us why exactly we have reached this point.
When people understand, they will want to help. This country belongs to all Samoans, which includes Prime Minister Tuilaepa, Tui Atua, Government officials, critics, opposition parties, churches, Samoans living everywhere, you and us. There is no doubt that as Samoans, we would all want to help the Government find a way out.
But this is where transparency and accountability are critical components. It also demands humility and a duty of care on the part of the Government to tell the truth.
Where do we start? Well, tell us what is happening with Samoa Airways and its finances for instance? Tell us if it’s true that vaccination rates plummeted because there was no funding for it? What is the truth about the nation’s state of finances, debt and loans? Why has the Government not been able to inject any real cash into the economy in its so-called COVID19 stimulus package? And why is the Government so secretive and sensitive about offshore finances and its cash cow called the Samoa International Finance Authority?
There are so many more questions. The point is, there is a lot at stake, our customary lands, titles, passports, citizenships, inheritance and culture are under threat. We cannot be silent, sit back and allow them to be lost.
What do you think? Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless!