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Borderline Views: Seeking greater transparency
We need a citizens' movement to force MKs who abuse funds to resign, and be replaced with those not trying to get rich quick.
The new British government is only three weeks old and one of its ministers has been forced to resign due to financial impropriety. David Laws, appointed chief secretary to the Treasury less than three weeks ago, stood down, saying that he no longer believed his position was tenable after it was revealed that he had claimed more than £40,000 to live in his partner’s house. The fact that this was a member of the Liberal Democrat Party, the new junior coalition partner which had been least tainted by the financial scandals of the country’s elected representatives during the past year, made the matter all the more serious.

Following last year’s scandals, a parliamentary committee severely tightened up, and reduced, the way in which British parliamentarians could claim expenses for such things as travel allowances, second homes (since most of the 650 members have to find somewhere to live in London while Parliament is in session) and a range of other functions which, it could be argued, are a necessary byproduct of a public life. The new prime minister has also clamped down on the perks of being a cabinet minister, getting rid of chauffeured cars and insisting that ministers, like the public at large, come to work on public transportation.

No doubt about it but the new Parliament is under public scrutiny, MPs expenses are being examined, and whatever escapes the eyes of the formal watchdogs will, sooner or later, be picked up by an intrusive press, for whom the behavior of the country’s elected officials is at the top of the list of interests.

Although there were dozens of cases which came to light in the UK last year, only three resulted in criminal prosecutions – in all the others it was accepted that the MPs had interpreted the rules concerning expenses too broadly and had repaid the overdrawn amounts. In some cases, where the nature of the expense was seen as being too perverse (such as claiming mortgage relief for second homes when they were renting the accommodation from a close relative, or redecorating their houses, or landscaping the gardens of their second homes, or claiming allowances for days which they did not attend Parliament), the MP was forced to resign his/her position due to public pressure or, as happened in many cases, were deselected by their parties, enabling new, young fresh members of Parliament to be elected in their place at the recent election. In some cases, this included members of the cabinet.

IT IS comforting to know that we are not the only country affected by such scandal. The past decade has witnessed a seemingly endless series of financial scandals affecting our leaders, of which the latest case of Ehud Olmert is but one – albeit the most prominent and most serious, given the fact that he was prime minister for three years. Unlike the Brits, we also have a tendency to proclaim everyone guilty before the matter has been investigated. There have been a number of cases where senior public officials have been suspected of financial fraud, arraigned in the press, filmed going to and from their meetings with police investigators, only for the charges to be dropped or for a verdict of not guilty to be passed down.

But there have been sufficient cases of proven fraud affecting high officials – Aryeh Deri, Avraham Hirchson, Shlomo Ben-Izri, to name but a few – for the public to have gotten fed up with our elected officials, partially accounting for a growing apathy toward politics and politicians, as displayed in falling participation rates in political debates and in the election process.

The sort of expense frauds which dominated the national press in the UK during the past year haven’t even started to appear here. We are engaged with the wrongdoings of our leaders, and haven’t yet started to undertake a thorough investigation of the rank-and-file MKs who also enjoy large expense accounts. Such items as “keeping in contact with the voter,” hotel expenses for staying in Jerusalem, travel expenses and the like make up a major part of an MK’s regular income.

ONE OF the ways of avoiding this misappropriation of public funds is to restructure the salaries of MKs in such a way that there is less need for large , often unaccounted for, expense accounts. But Knesset salaries are not that bad to begin with; in fact, relative to the respective costs of living in both countries, they are probably better than those received by British parliamentarians.

Alternately, there should be much greater public scrutiny and transparency of expense accounts. MKs and other public officials are paid out of our taxes, so there is every reason why, once a year, a full accounting of these expenses should be published for all to see. The very fact that much of this is hidden from the public only makes it more suspicious, even for those many cases where the MK is behaving honestly. It is not difficult to have a link on the Knesset Web site which would spell out the way in which our money is being used by our elected representatives.

The situation in which Defense Minister Ehud Barak used millions of shekels to host a party for hundreds (or was it thousands?) of guests on Independence Day, or booked the most expensive hotel suites in Paris for a too-large entourage, or the fact that so many ministers and prime ministers invite far too many hangers on to accompany them on expensive foreign trips – such as happened quite disgracefully at last week’s meeting of the OECD in Paris – is simply unacceptable at any time, let alone in periods of financial crises.

What is needed is a citizens’ movement which will force these parliamentarians to step down, as their British counterparts were forced to do, and to be replaced by people for whom public service is not seen as a way to get rich quick. Indeed, one of the new regulations to be implemented in Britain will be the ability of local constituencies to “recall” their representatives if they are found to be behaving improperly. Unfortunately, this can only work in a constituency system where there is significant grassroots power – something which does not exist here.

It is hard to see a situation where our ministers – of whom there are far too many living on the public expense – get rid of their cars and chauffeurs and transfer to taxis and Egged buses. If it were to happen, the most significant impact would be the damage to their egos – as, just like their British cabinet counterparts, most of us would not even recognize them.
And perhaps that’s the way it should be.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University, and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.
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