From Nuala Haughey, Advocacy and Research Officer, Transparency International Ireland
As the Mahon report rightly states, corruption thrives in shadows and darkness. The twilight world of political finances – and the toxic nexus between business and political parties – is an obvious area where the disinfectant properties of sunlight are much needed.
The Mahon report echoes the Moriarty report in emphasising that disclosure must be the bedrock of all attempts to control corruption risks associated with money in politics.
Transparency International Ireland believes that detailed disclosure by political parties and candidates of assets, income and expenditures, together with adequate oversight and enforcement, is the starting point of any decent regulatory framework.
Incredibly, political parties are not currently obliged to keep proper books and accounts including donations, let alone to make them available to public scrutiny. While parties produce accounts for their members, they are not subject to scrutiny by an independent body. The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) has repeatedly warned that this makes it impossible to know the annual income of political parties and to have a full picture of how elections are funded.
On last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne on TV3, Fine Gael’s Charlie Flanagan, vigorously pressed on why his party does not voluntarily publish its annual accounts in full, fell back on the lame excuse that: “It hasn’t been the practice until now.”
This may change soon. The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 currently before the Oireachtas would oblige parties to publish annual audited accounts. However it leaves it up to SIPO to draw up draft guidelines for the format of these accounts in consultation with political parties, with final approval by the Minister for the Environment. If disclosure is to be meaningful, it is crucial that the format of party accounts is comprehensive and standardised. Is it really appropriate to put SIPO in the position of having to cajole political parties into agreeing a standard format for their accounts? And do we really want a minister – who is a member of a political party after all – to have the final say on the matter?
When it comes to disclosure of political donations, timing is key. Long gaps between the receipt of a donation and its disclosure make it difficult to establish a causal link between a political donation and a favour rendered. The Moriarty report recommended that donations be disclosed in something approaching a real time frame. In Finland, political parties receiving public funding must disclose on a monthly basis monetary or in-kind donations exceeding €1,500. In the UK, political parties must submit reports detailing the names and addresses of donors to the Electoral Commission on a quarterly basis. Currently, parties and candidates in Ireland file annual donation statements to SIPO, (the latest available on its website are for 2010). They also submit to SIPO election expenses statements some three months after polling.
The corruption risks which the current bill does not address are significant, and many of them have been highlighted by SIPO, the Council of Europe, the Moriarty Report and now the Mahon report. In fact, the Mahon report takes issue with the very definition of “donation” in current law, which is any contribution “given for political purposes.” This definition interrogates the intention of the donor, not the actual use made of the money. Mahon recommends, very sensibly, that a donation should be defined as “any contribution given, used or received for political purposes”.
Mahon makes several other solid recommendations to curb corruption risks and ensure better enforcement of party finance rules, including increasing SIPO’s enforcement resources and powers, and introducing new criminal sanctions. Transparency International Ireland is calling for a revitalised SIPO to be equipped with the powers and resources to conduct investigations and impose sanctions in relation to breaches political funding laws, as well as ethics laws.
The key feature of the current bill – that it effectively bans corporate donations – is being presented by government ministers as deep-cleansing panacea, when in reality it is not. If public trust in political parties is to be rekindled, legislators should ensure that reforms are meaningful and that that parties and candidates sign up to the spirit as well as the letter of any new laws.