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MPS should read the signs on taxation

The debate on whether parliamentarians should pay tax on their all income is rightly attracting the opprobrium of Kenyans.

This is not a new issue, by the way, nor is it particularly Kenyan. Members of parliament and leading bigwigs in other countries have also, in the past, felt that their role is so special and their status so exalted that they should be exempt from that thing none of us escapes: taxation. But in other countries leaders are able to gauge the strength of feeling and read the signs on the wind. Sooner or later, they start paying their dues to the state.

In the United Kingdom, the Queen voluntarily began paying taxes on her income in 1992. Their parliamentarians also now pay their taxes, just like the common man and woman. These debates have raged around the world, but they generally have only one conclusion: everyone ends up paying tax. There is nothing that annoys the tax-paying public more than the idea that they have to cough up a third or more of their hard-earned income while someone else gets off scot-free. Intelligent leaders can sense this anger, and change accordingly.

What is different in Kenya is the obtuseness and belligerence of the average parliamentarian, who would find it difficult to read the signs on the wind if they blew into his dining room and landed in his soup! Indeed, the MPs who rose to protest betrayed their uncouth dimwittedness on a number of counts.

First, they failed to recognise the political trap that the wily Finance Minister was setting for them when he first tabled the idea that MPs should pay tax in his recent Budget Speech. If they had been paying attention (which we know is a major problem in the August house), they would have seen the sly grin on his face as he cast the bait. And true to form, many MPs came rushing in to take it, hook, line and sinker. Now they are on record as the greedy, selfish and insensitive ones. They were invited to pick up their guns and shoot themselves in the foot. Bang! was their answer. Well, they deserve it.

Second, when they call press conferences to explain their case, it would help if our bellicose elected leaders actually sat down to think before they opened their mouths. For this, as I understood it, was their argument: One, that they have a special role in society and should not be made “as miserable as their constituents”; two, that they need big money to support their constituents from cradle to grave; and three, that taxing MPs will do nothing to remove poverty in Kenya.

Let us examine their special role. What, exactly, have most of our parliamentarians ever done for this country, other than put it in the doghouse? In January this year we came close to outright civil war and an ethnic cataclysm. What leadership did these “leaders” demonstrate then? You can probably count on one hand those who rose to the occasion to prevent hatred and misunderstanding from escalating. Most, in fact, were holed up in Nairobi, too scared to visit their constituencies! So please, members, spare us the outlandish idea that your role demands special consideration.

Let’s move on to whether the terms of the job demand exemption. This is a job, in case you’d forgotten, where you have to put in the equivalent of two days a week at your place of work – and that too is optional! And just after this debate started, the Speaker of the House was found lamenting the lack of quorum. For all of this, you get a world-beating remuneration package: salary, allowances, loans, travel, security – even a gun! And you STILL don’t want to pay tax? Remarkable.

And now, this business of supporting all those poor people. Do MPs imagine, living in a poor country as they do, that they are the only ones who have an unnatural number of dependants? No, that is the common situation of anyone earning a decent income. But it does not occur to us to claim exemption from tax on that basis.

Most Kenyans hate paying tax – because they find it difficult to see the effects. What are we supporting, after all? Dilapidated schools, under-equipped health facilities, tattered roads, demotivated policemen? In fact, it is the very thought that our taxes go to fattening the fat cats that makes everyone resent paying tax in the first place! Most Kenyans, however, are not allowed to vote on the subject. Perhaps we should have a national referendum on the idea of paying taxes? Perhaps not, because the concept of government would crumble the following day!

Parliamentarians should do the sensible thing and show some decorum and some leadership, just for a change. And should they shoot this proposal down on the floor of the House – well, let’s just publish the names of those against!

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