The recent re-emergence of the uncomfortable nexus between politicians and business was witnessed before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Bond Issuance. This nexus maybe sociologically complex, but the solution is far more straightforward.
The government needs to expeditiously introduce a mandatory register of financial interest for all MPs, which would ensure that all gifts and donations, amongst other things, are recorded and accessible to the public. This would assist in rebuilding trust amongst the public and would mark a tangible step towards improving flailing governance standards.
Whilst the register of interests will allow for greater public scrutiny, it would also invaluably serve politicians who legitimately receive gifts, donations, financial support for overseas visits – all of which are not part of an arrangement construed as abusing the power of elected office. If such claims arose, it would be done publicly and any non-disclosure would give rise to credible grounds for investigation and action.
Many claim that breaking the nexus between politics and business is an insurmountable hurdle due to the inevitable features of Sri Lankan society, particularly given the common links through education, an isolated economic elite and geographically centred economic power amongst many other relevant factors. However these very issues are what support the call for a register of financial interests, particularly given the interconnections found within Sri Lankan society.
In the absence of a financial interest register, conflicts of interest will continue to arise. The concern with conflicts of interest are that by their very nature, they must be avoided as it is difficult to ascertain whether discretionary power is used to favour particular interests. If such interests were recorded, it would empower those in compliance and would significantly shift the burden of proof upon those who have avoided making such disclosure to justify their actions.
If such a financial interests register existed, the purported gift of the money to settle rental costs for the former Finance Minister could have been questioned at the time it occurred and valuably could have acted as a deterrent to such arrangements being made. If such an arrangement were not disclosed, it would prove damning evidence. However, in the absence of an interest register, it is impossible to know whether those in elected office actively seek to keep such gifts and donations away from public knowledge. This inevitably leads at every juncture to public mistrust. An interest register, which is open to the public, would provide a significant step in remedying that trust deficit.
By Asoka Obeyesekere,
Executive Director, Transparency International Sri Lanka