Disclosure Downside [opinion]

I AM NOT a cheerleader for legally mandated public financial disclosure of the assets of elected officials, unless it is linked to a programme for:

disclosuremitigation of material conflicts of interest, consistent updating of that data, fact-checking the submissions, closed session disclosures to the Speaker when third parties are involved and painful penalties for non-compliance. Otherwise, disclosure doesn’t have a purpose higher than stoking the flames of the gossip mills.

Recently, our President and our distinguished First Lady disclosed their assetsfinancial worth for public consumption. It was done as a commendable example of transparency in government and for the Namibian people to see integrity in action. This is a good thing.

People should see the lucrative results of hard work over decades by competent, skilled, professionals and seek to emulate this rather than stampeding towards the get-rich-quick short cuts that abound in our society.

However, I worry that the downside of financial disclosure could yield negative blow-back, including unnecessary voyeurism, envy, carping, jealousy, ridiculous public demands for generosity, and no more financial asset transparency among politicians than exists now. I fear that in the headline-grabbing focus on how much our leaders are worth, we have not focused on the main reason why there should be financial disclosure.

The disclosure of the financial positions of elected officials should be solely for the purpose of identifying, mitigating andor ending material conflict of interest in the passage of laws and regulations, awarding of government tenders and contracts, or confirmation of SOE executive staff and boards. Knowing elected officials’ financial ties just to ‘know’ is an uncomfortable brand of voyeurism that serves no larger institutional purpose. However, using that information to establish a system that checks conflict of interest would be important.

I wonder if those who must disclose their finances but do not have millions in assets, will feel emasculated or embarrassed at the requirement to disclose.

The cynical populist opinion is that any elected official driving a sleek car or living in a large house sleeps on a bed of cash gained from corrupt practices. This is an unfair sweeping generalisation, but it exists. Are we to accept that an elected official who reports low financial assets is automatically honest and those with higher asset bases are automatically corrupt? That is a small-minded conclusion but that is the ‘talk’ that flies around when discussing this issue.

The assets and cash flow of some who have to disclose may not be what many people think. While they are not living in shacks, some struggle in silence to battle crushing debt and make ends meet. Between house bonds, grasping relatives, cultural obligations, children’s school fees, car payments, medical expenses, insurances, and other things, many have not been able to save, let alone invest, significant funds.

They are lucky to own a few skinny cows, goats and chickens in their traditional areas. A significant number of those who disclose will probably report having neither stocks, annuities, EPLs, nor lucrative shares in fishing cartels. Letting the voyeuristic public know that you are broke can be hugely debilitating to professional reputations and future aancement opportunities whether in the public or private sector.

Some who are legally obligated to disclose may be getting their own accounts in order to comply. Others may be nervous about it, knowing that a full disclosure could lead to all kinds of mess down the road. Relatives and friends could climb from nowhere with hands out arguments among business partners may occur legal action on various points may be instituted and a whole host of other ugly things could emerge, onceif full disclosure happens. Are we scaring away the talented, skilled people from national service as elected officials by asking them to lay bare their personal business for scrutiny unlinked to institutional transparency?

Then, there is the usual problem of enforcement. Checking the volumes of details that will be disclosed will be hugely time consuming and very costly. Whatever information is submitted could contain incorrect data, misleading half-truths, purposeful omissions andor legal exploitation of loopholes.

Of course, once such a disclosure statement is submitted, it is on the record and at some later date, if someone should step in life’s poo and be exposed, legal action could then be taken. Perhaps that intangible ‘maybe someday’ hammer is all that we can expect in terms of enforcement but that’s pretty weak.

If the country is really serious about disclosure, then let’s not dance around it. Instead of detailed disclosures causing backlogged piles of paper that will not be analysed and made accessible for many months (if ever), why not fund and empower the Ombudsman working in tandem with parliament and the tax office to check over those disclosure forms and compare all submissions with tax returns, land title deeds, and registered companies and then handle the matter one-on-one with each lawmaker in turn?

Disclosure reports to the public should only give elected officials’ bottom-line asset total, not a line by line list with company names and percentages of ownership. This level of detail can compromise third parties who are not elected officials and that’s not fair to them.

Let the details of the disclosure be for internal use by authorised officials to check for material conflict of interest with matters before parliament, Cabinet and other official institutions. Make allowances for honest errors and give time to those making the submissions to make corrections.

Allow for closed-door disclosures for cases where legal backlash may be possible. And finally, set a rule that if there is no disclosure submitted or exception granted within six months of swearing in, the person is expelled from parliament.

If the law demands disclosure, then it should matter for something tangible. Otherwise, our system should rely on personal honesty, drop the entire thing and move on to other pressing issues.

Source : The Namibian