Thirty four Members of Parliament, including the Hon Speaker, met at the Tuanaimato Sports Complex at 9:30am for the Assembly’s December Pre-Sitting Briefing. Members were briefed by Chief Executives and their representatives from the Ministry of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment; the Ministry of Finance; the Ministry for Revenue, and the Gambling Control Authority on the contents and objectives of 6 Bills. These Bills will be introduced in the House on Tuesday, 19th December. A summary of the presentations and the main issues raised by Members is provided.
1. Immigration Amendment Bill 2017
Presenter: Agafili Shem Leo (CEO)
Responsible Ministry: Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Ministry’s Chief Executive, Agafili Shem Leo, stated that the proposed amendment would amend section 12, to increase the permissible timeframe for tourist visitations to Samoa from 60 days to 90 days. Agafili stated that the Government, along with other European Union (EU) member States, signed a visa waiver agreement which permits citizens to travel to EU States without a visa for a period of up to 90 days. The proposed amendment therefore aligns with this agreement, in fulfilling the State’s agreement obligations. Agafili noted that prior to 2015, Samoan citizens were required to apply for Schengen visa’s to travel to Schengen member countries, such as Denmark and Iceland. The visa-free agreement has since replaced the need for member countries to do so. The Chief Executive further stated that other States were in the process of adopting the same practice, such as Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was also noted that Fiji has had a similar legislation in place for the last 2 years.
The majority of Members noted their support for the Bill. Queries were, however, raised in regards to issues such as the Bill’s applicability to dual citizens; visitations to American Samoa; the process for renewing visas after the expiration of 90 days; the Bill’s effect on transit visas; and the possibility of travellers working while on a tourist visa. The major focus of the discussions, however, was on seeking ways to ensure tourist visas were not abused for purposes other than those outlined in the Act. Several Members raised concerns over the ability of the Ministry to monitor an increased influx of tourists, which could include undeclared asylum seekers, tax evaders, and so forth.
The Chief Executive noted these issues were not unique to Samoa, as all visas can be abused in some form or another. However, it was the Ministry’s duty to collaborate with other States to enable information sharing to aid the detection of “high risk” tourists.
2. Crimes Amendment Bill 2017
Presenter: Ve’atauia Faatasi Puleiata (Deputy Registrar)
Responsible Ministry: Justice and Courts Administration
The Deputy Registrar from the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, Ve’atauia Faatasi Puleiata, stated that the overall objective of the proposed amendment was to provide for crimes against a person’s reputation in the Crimes Act 2013.
The majority of Members noted their support for the Bill, yet sought clarification on various issues. Much of the discussion focused on the leniency of the proposed penalties, with many Members noting that the provided penalties were not enough to deter people from harming other people’s reputations. Other issues which were raised focused on the difference between civil and criminal recourse for those who were the victims of character attacks. It was noted that presently there is recourse for affected persons under civil law; but not criminal law. Another objective of the bill is to provide for criminal recourse to assist those who do not have the means to bring their cases to court due to an inability to secure legal representation.
3. Alienation of Customary Land Amendment Bill 2017
Presenter: Ulu Bismarck Crawley (CEO), Filisita Heather (ACEO-Land Management) and Shirley Malielegaoi (ACEO-Legal Services)
Responsible Ministry: Natural Resources and Environment.
The CEO read out the objects and intents of the bill, noting that the bill sought to amend the Principal Act (Alienation of Customary Land Act 1965; strengthen the provisions relating to the leasing and licensing of customary land; and facilitating the mortgaging of leases over customary land.
The Chief Executive clarified that the key amendments propose to protect the interests of the beneficial land owners and to provide them with certain rights that are often enjoyed by commercial lessors under a Lease or License Agreement. The amendment in relation to mortgages of leases over customary land is to facilitate the mortgaging process and establish legal requirements that will protect the ownership rights of the beneficial land owners, while also providing for the interests of the mortgagors and mortgagees. Ulu stated that it was envisaged that the amendments will improve people’s standards of living through promoting greater economic use of customary land (through leasing agreements) and concluded that all Samoans would benefit from the amendments proposed by the bill.
Members raised various concerns on the bill while others expressed their support and agreement. The members who supported the bill stated that the proposed amendment provided beneficial owners of the land, an opportunity to have a say in the decisions of the customary land. It was in this regard that the ACEO for Land Management, Filisita Heather, responded that the amendment provides the opportunity for beneficial owners (family members) to have a say in the decisions made regarding their customary land. Filisita further stated that when the lease is brought to the Ministry’s attention, they would advertise it for 6 months in the Savali newspaper; if there are no objections within this time, the lease is then confirmed and the Lands and Titles Division of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration would inform the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, that they may proceed with preparing the documentation and the lease agreement for the parties to sign.
Another concern which was raised by TAFUA Maluelue Tafua, was the lack of proper awareness programs and information provided to the public, to ensure they are informed and clearly understand the purpose of the amendment. The member stated that the protest on Saturday was a result of having a misinformed and misunderstood community. Tafua stated that when things are clear and understandable, the purpose is easily accepted by the people.
4. Income Tax Amendment Bill 2017
Presenter: Matafeo Avalisa Viali (CEO)
Responsible Ministry: Revenue
The Chief Executive for Revenue, Matafeo Avalisa Viali stated that the overarching purpose of the Bill was to amend s104A of the Income Tax Act 2012, to provide investment tax credits for tourists. Avalisa noted that the amendment is to a Bill which is scheduled to be third read in the House at Tuesday’s sitting; however, the new Bill will change the tax date from 30 June 2017 to 30 June 2018. It was stated that since the said Bill was introduced in the House in previous months, new hotels had been approved by Cabinet to be eligible for tax credits. The changing of the relevant date will permit these new hotels enough time to secure local investors. It was noted that as the Bill had already been discussed in detail both in the House and in Committee; there was little need to discuss the change of date for the purposes of the briefing.
5. Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank Bill 2017
Presenter: Salote Peteru (ACEO – Legal)
Responsible Ministry: Finance
The presentation by the Ministry of Finance began with an explanation by the Hon Minister of Finance, SILI Epa Tuioti, on the objectives of the Bill. The Hon Minister stated that the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank is a new bank in Samoa; a bank which both New Zealand and Australia had previously advised against using. However, in recent years, many States have begun to utilise the services of the multilateral development bank. SILI stated that the bank is similar to the Asian Development (ADB) and World Banks; however, it focuses primarily on providing loans for infrastructure within the Asia-Pacific region. He further stated that if Parliament were to enact the Bill, Samoa would be the first State to not only pay its membership fee and enact a law. In regards to the benefits of the Government signing an agreement with the Bank, the Hon Minister stated that it can provide billions of dollars to aid infrastructure development, in addition to providing an option for funding for the private sector.
The Ministry lawyer, Salote then stated the agreement process for the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank will be similar to practices that were utilised for banks such as the ADB. Salote stated that most of the preliminary groundwork had already been completed—noting that what was remaining was the payment of the first instalment for shares and the deposit of the instrument of ratification. Salote stated that the benefits of an agreement between the Bank and the Government included the ability to obtain loans and grants, which were also available for the private sector. In terms of reservations, it was noted that the Government had to ensure provisions were in place to retain its right to tax Samoan citizens who would be employees of the bank.
Queries which were raised by Members included the practical effects of taxation on dual citizens, and clarification for section 13 which provided for tax exemptions. The Hon Minister stated that banks such as the ADB, World Bank and the Asia Bank were not commercial banks; they were State financial institutions—or what are referred to as “multilateral” banks. Hon SILI further stated that assistance is needed from the bank as there is not enough funds to support all State infrastructure projects, including upgrade projects which would be required in 20 – 30 years time. In terms of tax exemptions, the Hon Minister stated that all member States were exempt from taxation.
6. Casino and Gambling Amendment Bill 2017
Presenter: Elia Tulifau (Senior Solicitor & Inspector)
Responsible Ministry: Gambling Control Authority
The Senior Solicitor & Inspector, Elia Tulifau stated that the primary purpose of the Bill was to amend the 2010 Principal Act. Elia stated that while the majority of the provisions were intended to improve the work of the Authority, the primary amendment in regards to gambling was for interactive gaming.
Queries which were raised by Members included what percentage of Authority revenue was donated to charity and why the Authority sought to remove tax exemptions. The representative for the Authority stated that there are scholarship and sponsorship schemes in place, which are open to applications from suitable candidates. As an example, Elia stated that the Authority often provides up to SAT$20,000 to eligible schools. In regards to the removal of tax exemptions, it was stated that tax is not paid by the casino, but rather commissions are distributed as required. The Hon Minister for Public Enterprises, LAUTAFI Fio Selafi Purcell, stated that revenue generated from gambling ventures were used for sponsorship purposes (for example, sports teams and so forth). He further stated that the Authority’s primary focus for the meantime was on appropriately amending the Principal Act which governs the internal workings of the Authority.
The Speaker concluded the briefing with a prayer at 2:07pm.
The House will convene on Tuesday, 19th December at 9:00am