Public financial disclosures a mixed bag

The minister of agriculture, water and land reform, Calle Schlettwein is to be applauded for his financial disclosures. He followed the rules with integrity and good intentions. However, we question how democracy is strengthened in Namibia by one member making such a detailed disclosure. The rules of financial disclosure by ALL in Parliament are not being followed. And, financial information is being reported salaciously. This is not the reason behind disclosure.

Financial disclosure of assets is only useful in deciding if legislation before the Parliament is in conflict with the personal assets of MPs. How the minister financed the renovation of his family home is something he could choose to say in a business column interview. It is not for an official government document that must indicate whether legislation pending presents a conflict.

We submit that the minister’s financial information on the front pages and social media is demeaning and not disclosing. This is no longer about the serious democratic issue of transparency. The information disclosed panders to gossip-column competitiveness enjoyed by those with less imagination.

We respect Minister Schlettwein’s attempt, yet again, to lead by example and do the right thing. But, with that same respect, we submit that whether the minister stated he was worth N$3 million, N$30 million or N$300 wouldn’t matter to the Namibian public. White people are ‘expected’ to have money. So, his rather modest wealth doesn’t raise an eyebrow or attract scandal.

Any black office holder submitting detailed financials like Schlettwein’s would light up social media with rumours of how much money he/she stole. Tweets would fly about businesses they supposedly own but are hidden under other people’s names. Reports of cars people saw them driving will be everywhere. Farms and cattle and shops they are assumed to own will make headlines. Any other thing that may or may not be listed on the disclosure form will be cannon fodder.

The question begs – How does any of that prevent lawmakers from passing legislation that positively impacts their business interests? The focus is on the wrong thing.

We should not know about the value of someone’s family home and their retirement funds. We should know if a bill that affects beef sales or regulations on mining businesses is voted on by legislators who will benefit from it.

Recent reports noted the huge information gaps in the disclosures of MPs. Some former members that own homes, cars, farms and businesses, and yet, they reported their Windhoek or village homes as their only asset. Some claimed they have no assets at all. Such blatant self-edited submissions show contempt for the rules.

Asset disclosure will never work without punitive action to force compliance. Just as most people would never publish the amount they are paid each month, people would go to great lengths to keep their net worth a secret. There is good reason for this. People will always look at what someone else earns or owns and compare it to theirs and then react. Some of those reactions are destructive and negative.

The reports about many members of Parliament who own shares in fishing companies is important. That is where asset disclosure makes sense. Any fishing industry law they voted on that can be proved to benefit their companies should be declared null and void if they did not declare a conflict and recuse themselves.

To solve the problem, Parliament should require the tax returns of any MPs, governors and the Executive. There will never be the political will for this. False or incomplete tax submissions carry legal penalties. Business connections, cattle, property and hidden assets could be highlighted. The political elite, regardless of party, will not welcome this.

There is a mixed bag of outcomes with the current asset disclosure system for politicians. Minister Schlettwein did the right thing. But, unless the information is directly related to legislation pending, it is does not serve the purpose.

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