Church tax not about theology, E.F.K.S. or whatever. It’s about money

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

And so once more, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, has issued a veiled threat to the E.F.K.S. Church in connection to the ongoing dispute over the taxing of the alofa received by Church Ministers.

While Cabinet has yet to officially announce their response to a letter from the E.F.K.S. calling on the Government to reconsider the law, Tuilaepa has given us a pretty clear idea about which way the Cabinet meeting is likely to go, if they haven’t done so already.

It happened in Parliament when Prime Minister Tuilaepa rebuked the Member of Parliament for Gagaemauga No. 3, Nafoitoa Tala’imanu Keti, when he touched on the issue. 

The Member of Parliament, who is also the Deputy Speaker, had expressed his gratitude towards the church following their meeting with Cabinet last week when he inadvertently offended the Minister of Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt and his boss, Tuilaepa.

So when Parliament convened on Wednesday morning, Tialavea had risen to the floor to object to Nafoitoa when Prime Minister Tuilaepa took over.

He cautioned that Nafoitoa’s comments could be misinterpreted that the Government had in fact accepted the plea from the church to reconsider the law to tax church Ministers.

“There are times when we become so carried away with our statements that we get it wrong, especially since the Member of Parliament was not present during our meeting with the church,” Tuilaepa said. 

“Cabinet is scheduled to meet today so a decision hasn’t been made. But it appears from the Member’s statement last night that a decision has been made. That’s what we have to be careful about because there has been no official response from the Government. We have to discuss this first.”

Tuilaepa reminded Nafoitoa: “You can’t endorse the law and then you get up and say something else. I want to ensure that members of the public are not misled.”

As your newspaper has already reported, in a letter dated 15 June 2018, the Elders of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) have urged Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his administration to reconsider the law. In the letter, the Church argues that:

• The tax law is not in line with Biblical principles 

• The tax law contradicts the E.F.K.S’s core beliefs

• The tax law will impact the work of the church 

• The tax law does not take into account the church’s contribution to the development of the Government and Samoa

• The need for separation between the church and state

But in Parliament, Tuilaepa said the E.F.K.S. has left their objection late.

“There are thirty five different Christian denominations in Samoa. From that number, thirty four make up 75percent of this country who have not said a thing. They have accepted it,” Tuilaepa reminded. 

“Not one of those thirty four churches has bothered to meddle with the issue because they know it is a government matter.”

 The Prime Minister reminded that the Government and the Church have different responsibilities, which have already been demarcated by God. 

“What are those?” he asked. “The role of churches is to feed people with spiritual food; the responsibility of the government is different. The Government’s responsibility is to feed people with physical food so they are satisfied, happy and that the flock exists peacefully.”

Tuilaepa reminded about Apostle Paul’s teaching that all authorities are from God, which is a point he has made time and time again. On that note, he said Parliament is the final authority on matters of law.

 “In this house are representatives from all over Samoa. There is no government that goes forward, back, forward and back. It doesn’t work like that,” he said. 

“It is why this country continues to support this party. This is not a government that exists to please people; this Government is not like that. We don’t exist to please people that whoever has an objection we lean towards it. That’s why this Government is recognised and respected in this part of the world.”

Well it’s hard to fault Prime Minister Tuilaepa in this regard. 

Technically, he is correct in many aspects of what he is saying; especially that Parliament is the final authority on all laws in Samoa. He is also correct that the E.F.K.S’s objection has come a little late and that if the Government changes its mind, this will go down in history as one of the most bizarre situations where a Parliament has bowed to external pressure. We understand that.

But here is the thing. Parliament and Government are supposed to be guided by those principles of accountability, transparency and good governance. It requires people like Tuilaepa to be upfront about why such laws are necessary. 

Since the beginning of this entire debate, no one in Government has really sat down and explained to the country why it has suddenly become necessary to tax the clergy. 

Ladies and gentlemen, for 55 years after Independence, members of the clergy were not required to pay taxes on their alofa. The reason is simple. The economy could obviously function without them. Besides there was no financial hole the Government was under so much pressure to fill.

Today, it is a different story. With the Government having racked up a massive debt that’s threatening to bury us all, no thanks to so many white elephants, corruption and abuse, this is obviously a sign of desperation.

For the past few months, it has been interesting observing the debate touching on Biblical principles, theology, doing the right thing and so forth. It has been mind blowing.

But from our standpoint, this law is not about doing the right thing, theology or whatever. It’s all monies and to an extent desperation. Folks, this issue is bigger than the E.F.K.S’s objection. That is just a small part. 

This is about a Government that has basically dug us into such a big hole they are now resorting to desperate measures to find a way out. 

The questions are: How did we arrive to where we are today? And how do we get ourselves out of it?

The answer 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 today. All this talk from the Government about everyone needing to contribute to the development of Samoa needs to stop.

Where was that talk 55 years ago? Why was it not raised by our forefathers? And if it’s about doing the right thing, 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?

When people understand, they will want to help. And there is no doubt that the churches – including the E.F.K.S. – would want to help Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his Government find a way out. Understanding is key.

Interestingly, at one point during this debate, the Government had accused the E.F.K.S. church of pointing a gun to Parliament’s head. That might be how some people would interpret it. 

But here’s something to think about. With the rising debt and the poor state of the economy, nothing in Samoa is safe. Our customary lands, passports, citizenships, inheritance and culture are under threat. Don’t you think that this Government has instead pointed a gun at the people of Samoa?

What do you think? Have a restful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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