Debate on Finance Bill exposes how the State spends our taxes

Activists demonstrate against the proposed Finance Bill 2023 along Harambee Avenue in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

In a country where we perceive most societal events through political prisms, it is easy to miss critical moments where events cause societies to go through moments of quick evolution.

One such moment is the ongoing debate over the Finance Bill 2023. Since independence, Kenya has had few major national conversations outside elective politics, and the latter tend to be more of ruckus than debate. The most obvious issue-based national conversations were the debates surrounding enactment of the new Constitution and recent debate on the Building Bridges Initiative. Those two conversations provided critical pillars in the nation-building project.

The ongoing debate on the Finance Bill 2023 and the taxation provisions therein will provide further props in the project of building Kenya into a better country.

The debate marks the first time where matters of revenue raising are not limited to elite civil society groups and business organisations fighting over this and that contentious levy. The man and woman on the street are now active participants in the deliberations.

Last night, my 88-year-old uncle engaged me in a debate on the housing levy and articulated, impressively for his level of education, reasons why some Kenyans are opposed to it. This debate is evening banter in most households and the conversation mover in many social joints. I doubt that in introducing the Bill, the Kenya Kwanza administration's main intention was public participation so that Kenyans would contribute to policy and law-making.

It was probably assumed the Bill would just be opposed and supported within the typical political partisan groupings. What is also different about the current discourse is that it is more informed than past debates. While many of those opposing the debate may not have the intellectual acumen of Prof Alfred Omenya and Principal Secretary Charles Hinga, they nevertheless appreciate critical elements of the issues in contention.

I have no doubt that the government will eventually win the battle on the Bill, there is too much of its success invested in it.

In any event, someone must have advised that the best time to make unpopular decisions is in your first year; if the decisions bear fruit later in your term, citizens tend to be forgiving.

That said, there is a long-term war for people's hearts that Kenya Kwanza needs to win, and there are lessons this process can teach that will make this easier in future.

Firstly, the government started this discourse too late. Long before there was a Bill on the floor, the public needed to have been sensitised on the economic realities we were facing and the inevitable consequences on taxation and other revenue-raising measures. While this was mentioned in passing it was never deliberately sunk into the national psyche. For instance, the merits of state-funded low-income housing needed to have been unpacked to the public long before the specific levy was brought to the House.

This would also have provided an opportunity for a discussion which permitted adjustments on proposals. By presenting its final position in a "take it or leave it" Bill, the government has opened itself to accusations of being obtuse and unamenable to reason.

Secondly, the government needs more of its intellectual community outside mainline politics and bureaucracy to sell its policies. You cannot pit intellectual heavyweights selling scepticism against government officers, however intellectually capable they may be, where the instinctive tendency of the public towards them is to be doubtful.

Government needs a coterie of friends, not patently connected to it, to sell difficult but good or necessary policy. Public officials are only occasionally needed to clarify key government positions.

All said however, while opposition to the Bill may look negative, the silver lining on the debate is Kenyans are more informed on the link between "public funds" and their own pockets. One hopes that Margaret Thatcher's ancient message that there is no such thing as public money; there is only people's money, has sunk in.

Hopefully, this will produce better citizens who hold their governments to account and who at the ballot box make decisions based on how prudently governments spend their hard-earned money.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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