Much has been said about the government’s expressed intention to tax pastors of all church denominations around Samoa; however, so far no firm decision has been made.
Still, the matter has become such a contentious topic of public debate, so that it now looks as if any amicable consensus the government might have been hoping for, is clearly nowhere to be seen from this point.
The poignant anomaly here though is that after 55 years of political independence, Samoans everywhere have grown so used to the belief that church ministers were their “visible link to their God”, which follows that’s just the way they believe it should always be.
And now that the idea they would be required to pay taxes to their government – taxes by the way is not exactly the kind of word that both thrills and stimulates - the question that jumps naturally to mind, is: Why should they be forced to pay taxes to their government when they do not have jobs like everyone else, including all the big businesses around the country?
Back on 22 March 2017, a story on the front page of the Samoa Observer, quoted Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, as having said he supported his Minister of Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, on his plan “to review Income Tax Laws.”
The Minister himself pointed out that “the main idea behind the review is so that everyone who earns an income will pay tax,” and he went on to say, “that includes Church Ministers and the Head of State.”
Revealed Tialavea: “The Ministry is reviewing all the (existing) laws. The main idea is to make sure that everyone in this country pays tax.”
He also said: “I took the oath when I was selected as the Minister that I would do everything to make sure that we get extra money for the development of the country.”
“So we are now in the process and we are reviewing the laws to make sure that everyone pays taxes.”
Tuilaepa concurred, saying: “The review should have happened 20 years ago.”
Why he said that though, he did not explain.
The point is that 20 years ago was 1999. At the time, Tuilaepa was already the Prime Minister of Samoa. In fact, he became prime minister in 1998. So why did he not see to it that the laws in question were reviewed then?
He did not say.
What he said though was: “That is why I am grateful to the Minister and his Ministry for coming up with this plan.”
He maintained that the proposed changes would not be targeting any particular group, saying: “The announcement that was made by the Minister is that the Ministry is in the process of reviewing all laws on income tax so everyone can pay tax.”
“They took an oath that they will look at all the avenues where they can get money for the development of our country.”
“The proposed changes look at including every working person in Samoa.”
Reminded Tuilaepa: “Tax money is extremely important to development.”
“As you know, these monies are for the development of our country. But we are not targeting a group of people.”
As for the churches, Minister Tialavea said they had been approached, and he explained: “We are now in the process of carrying out consultations with churches.”
“We already had a meeting with the Executive of the Samoa National Council of Churches where we discussed the issue.”
Ti’alavea also revealed “we’ve been looking at the businesses belonging to the churches.”
“We are revisiting the existing law so they can all be included. They pay V.A.G.S.T. but not income tax.”
“It’s only fair for them to pay taxes as well for the businesses they have in Samoa.”
In response, the Chairman of the Samoa National Council of Churches, Deacon Kasiano Le’aupepe, urged the government to exercise caution, particularly “on its plans to tax the offerings received by the members of the clergy.”
He told the Samoa Observer: “It is something they have to consider very carefully. It’s a sensitive matter because it is not the same for all the churches in Samoa.”
He also revealed: “We’ve told the Ministry the decision will not come from the Samoa National Council of Churches; this is because the Council is not the ones to decide on this matter.”
“We will leave it to leaders of each Church in Samoa to come up with their own ideas in relation to this and then present it to the Ministry for their report to Parliament.”
Leaupepe said his only wish was that “the review is fair and that everyone is given an opportunity to present their views.”
He explained: “Different churches in Samoa have their own systems. So it’s something that they should look at carefully because it is not the same for all the churches in Samoa.
“For example, the Methodist church and the C.C.C.S church have their own systems, different from the Catholic Church’s system.”
“If we look at the plan they have now, they are targeting the money given to faifeau (pastor) on Sunday (alofa/peleti).”
Leaupepe added: “There is a big difference between a person working for the government and a faifeau (church Minister).”
“A person who works for the government works 9-5 from Monday to Friday. As for a church ministers, they work days and nights.”
“If someone in the congregation dies late at night, the family will call the faifeau to come and conduct the service. That’s before anything else. No matter what time of the night something like this happens, the faifeau will always be called.”
“It can happen any day and any time of the day or night. There are sacrifices. They sacrifice a lot in the carrying out of their duties and calling from God.”
Leaupepe also explained: “The other important role of faifeau to me is that they never stop praying for the wellbeing of our people and our country.”
“They pray day and night not only for members of their congregations, but also for the whole country, and for those working in the offices.”
At one point, Leaupepe wondered out loud as to why the Framers of Samoa’s Constitution had not considered, taxing the clergy back then.
“I wish this was something that was included in the Constitution of our country,” he said. “It would’ve been very easy if it was there from the beginning.”
“Because we all know that all the churches we have in Samoa now did not originate from within our country.”
“They were all brought into the country. So it would’ve been nice if they had this in the beginning, so they could ask all the missionaries who brought in the churches in Samoa to pay their taxes before establishing their churches in Samoa.”
He suggested though that it would be far better if the government would tax the Church as a whole, “rather than targeting individual pastors.”
“I believe they shouldn’t ask individual pastors to pay taxes,” he said. “I believe they should target the income each church gets. For example, they should tax the money the Catholic Church gets and the money the Methodist Church gets.”
“That way, it would be fair for each church because it is harder and unfair to go after each individual pastor.”
“You know, the money that our people offer to pastors is given out of their own will. They do this in the name of God. Not because of anything else.”
He also said: “Pastors are addressed as representatives of God; they were chosen to spread the word of God.”
“I know the main reason they offer things to pastors. It’s because of their love for God, and because our people are used to giving with the belief that they will be blessed tenfold by God, if they give wholeheartedly.”
Asked for a comment on Prime Minister Tuilaepa’s claim that even Jesus Christ paid taxes, Leaupepe laughed.
“We all know the story,” he said. “Jesus held up the coin and asked the people to look at the image on the coin. He asked them whose image was on the coin and people said it was Caesar’s.”
“So Jesus said, give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
He paused and then he said: “This means, what’s been set aside for God and has been blessed for God, should be for God.”
“Those are sacred.”
According to Tuilaepa though, “tax money is extremely important” to the development of Samoa.
He said: “As you know, these monies are for the development of our country. But we are not targeting a group of people.”
The little snag here though is that for the last nineteen years during Tuilaepa’s reign as prime minister of this country, scores of millions of Tala in tax funds that had apparently been intended for the development of our country, had somehow been squandered away by mainly his seemingly never-ending squads of corrupt big lauia, who seemed to know quite well when it was time to disappear, and then along the way when the time was once again just right, they showed up.
In any case, that’s the problem our poor country has been struggling with over the last 20 years, and it is still struggling with it today.
So what is the solution?
It’s simple enough.
Until Prime Minister Tuilaepa decides that it’s time to put a permanent lid on the evil called bureaucratic corruption, by barring once and for all those big laui’a of his from getting even that close to the till, and then start afresh by allowing himself to be guided by the brand new trick called transparency and accountability, the funds that he’s planning to make from taxing the church pastors and the businesses the churches own, will not even be close enough to sweeten his little hand*.
Now that’s the solution, if you truly want to know.
Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless.
* “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
- William Shakespeare
Macbeth act 5, sc. 1, l. 51 (1606)