Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Peter Ibbotson
There are two things which, N.M.U. tells us on August 8, he is resolute in opposing. One of them is anything which tends to weaken British authority. Yet he has started a series of diatribes against Mr Hurd, the Commissioner of Income Tax; whatever may be the motives of N.M.U., the result of this series of diatribes, often couched in the most inelegant terms, can be only to weaken people’s regard for one of the senior Civil Servants in the island. (If N.M.U. were serious about not wishing to weaken the ties with Britain, he would stop trying to make Mauritius into an outpost of France).
Do not forget that Mr Hurd is a Civil Servant. In a piece on August 13 “Dédié à S.E. le Gouverneur”, N.M.U. bleats about fundamentals of British liberty. If he is so keen on guarding fundamentals of the British constitution, let him remember that Civil Servants are non-political; that Civil Servants cannot reply to any attacks, however vicious or malevolent or ill-founded, that may be made against them in speech or writing. I do not know Mr Hurd; but I do know high-ranking Civil Servants in the UK, and I can say safely and without fear of contradiction that the senior Civil Servant is a hard-working, conscientious man; underpaid, considering the responsibility that is his; underpaid, considering the high standards of integrity which he has to maintain. The regard in which Civil Servants are held by the general public is not always great. C. Servants are fair game for any cheapjack journalist who is for a tale (as Shakespeare said) “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The Civil Servant cannot hit back. So, the journalistic mud sticks; and the Civil Servant is maligned and falls in public esteem.
So it is with N.M.U. and Mr Hurd. For some reason, the big shots of Place d’Armes don’t like paying income tax. Perhaps they don’t like doing so personally; perhaps the people who don’t like paying tax are the supporters of Le Cerneen whose interest N.M.U. should defend. And so N.M.U. denounces Income Tax. And for good measure, as well as denouncing income tax in general, N.M.U. throws in a denunciation of Mr Hurd as well. But Mr Hurd cannot answer back — and in attacking him personally as well as the Department, N.M.U. is hitting a man whose hands are tied. Let us, therefore, have an end to this sniping at someone who cannot defend himself. Let us have any allegations of unfairness at the Income Tax Department raised not as though they were the personal affairs of the Civil Service head of the department.
The language used to describe Mr Hurd (“dictateur” on July 25) is the sort of language that, if it had been used by Hon Bissoondoyal or Mr Mason about the police, would have resulted in a charge of sedition. However, it is notorious — the history of politics 1920-39 in England shows it — that the right-wing can say with impunity what the left-wing dares not say at all; hence N.M.U. can cast aspersions on the integrity of the Colonial Civil Service by alleging, as he does on August 7, that some are Socialists who propagate their beliefs wherever they go. He says “… d’autres sont des authentiques Travaillistes, portant parfois en eux l’esprit amer, borné et invariablement subversif qui caractérise les doctrinaires du parti”.
In whose name are these diatribes written? N.M.U. appears to think that the People of Mauritius are behind him in his attacks on Mr Hurd and the Income Tax Department. But the latest Report of the department shows that there are only about 4,500 people in Mauritius liable to pay income tax on their personal incomes. That is about 1 in 20 of the total gainfully employed population. So N.M.U’s. virulent attacks on Mr Hurd and his Department can represent the views of at most, 4,500 individuals. So much for his glib references to the “people” (August 13 and 14). As a correspondent pointed out in Advance, a family with three children would have to have an income of over Rs 10,000 a year to be liable for tax! “People” my foot! Let’s look at some wage rates, as revealed in the 1954 Report of the Labour Department.
Average monthly wages are as follows artisans in the aloe fibre industry, Rs 133. Aerated water works, skilled men, Rs 103. Building trade foremen-generals, Rs 293. Unskilled compounders, Rs 99. Distillery artisans, Rs 206. Dockers, from Rs 233 to Rs 97. Drivers for Government departments, Rs 161. Male agricultural labourers for the Government, Rs 99. Mechanical sawyers. Rs 175. Typographers, Rs 164. Fitters, Rs 210. Who of these classes of workers is going to be upset by income tax? Is any of these earning enough to be liable for tax? Indeed, can the ordinary employed workers earn enough to pay tax, if he is a married man which children?
N.M.U’s words hide his real purpose. He isn’t concerned about the impact of income tax on the 4,500 individual taxpayers. He is concerned about the effect of income tax on the companies. He complains that Franco-Mauritians pay more tax than other people; this is hardly surprising when you stop to consider that the Franco-Mauritians own the profit-making enterprises from which the tax collector draws most of his revenue. The fact that these companies pay so much tax is because they make such big profits; they make such big profits because of one of two things — they charge too high prices for their goods, or they pay too low wages to their goods, or they pay too low wages to their employees. If the companies don’t want to pay so much income tax, let them make less profit by paying higher wages or by reducing their prices. Since the sugar producers can’t reduce their guaranteed price, they can raise wages. And a rise in wages wouldn’t come amiss to the underpaid labourer sweating his guts out for a miserable 79 rupees a month — if he’s lucky — as a maximum without overtime. 79 rupees a month — about 960 rupees a year, if he works all the year round; and many don’t.
Mr Hurd’s delinquencies, real or imaginary, aren’t going to worry the labourers. They have enough to worry about — where their next meal is coming from. How they’ll pay for any marriage or funeral that might happen in the family. Whether they’ll ever be out of debt to the moneylender. Continued rising prices, with additional customs duties, all these are matters which affect tens of thousands of people; all these are matters to which N.M.U. never seems to give his attention. All these are matters to which N.M.U. ought to give his attention instead of bothering about the grievances of very small minority groups of well-to-do folk.
But no. Instead, we find him worried because Mr Hurd sought to prevent what appeared to be a case of tax evasion. A company proposed to pay no dividends, but to put all its profits back into the business. Under section 55 of the Income Tax ordinance, Mr Hurd acted since it appeared to him that the company was doing this with a view to avoiding tax. N.M.U., however, has to squeal. At Place d’Armes, it is probably a noble thing to evade or avoid tax — it appears to be a national pastime in N.M.U’s spiritual home, France, where Poujadolf is a national figure, leading the campaign for the non-payment of taxes. Perhaps we shall see N.M.U. introducing Poujadism into Mauritius?
What is the purpose of income tax? Or of any tax? It is to provide the government with funds to carry out activity. There are certain fields of activity which aren’t profitable, so private enterprise won’t touch them — defence, the police and fire services, and a national system of education and so on. Private enterprise won’t or can’t provide these, so the government must do so. Since the government does so in the interests of the state, which means in the interest of the people as a whole, everyone in some way contributes to taxation. The wealthy — by income tax, for example. The poorer people, who don’t earn enough to pay income tax, none the less contribute; through, for example, customs duties. Stamp duty, succession duties, and so on, all provide the government with cash to carry out government works. Public assistance and old age pensions are paid out of government funds; the government of every civilised country maintains schemes to relieve distress among the poor people; but these schemes cost money which has to be got from somewhere. Income tax is one of the means by which it is got; and politically, income tax is one of the means by which unequal incomes are made less unequal in the interests of the community as a whole. People pay income tax according to their means; and the recipients of state aid receive it according to their needs. This transference is basically the Christian ethic as expounded at the end of chapters 2 and 4 of the Acts of the Apostles, with which N.M.U. as a Christian will be familiar.
N.M.U.’s series of Opinions attacking Mr Hurd are nothing new. They’re simply variations on his old and well-worn theme.
* Published in print edition on 1 November 2018