Keeping politicians honest

Most modern democracies have extensive oversight capabilities to ensure politicians are kept honest. Perhaps it is a commentary on the intrinsic values (or lack thereof) of politicians that such extensive supervision is deemed necessary!

Yet there is a disturbing trend that has so far escaped the proscription of enforceable codes of behaviour and it is the fees former leading politicians secure for various services once they leave office. Leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are earning millions of dollars a year for their various consultancies. The Clintons, particularly, are staggering in their bankability with the power couple reporting a revenue stream of more than $100 million in just eight years from 2000. Tony Blair is known to have earned $33 million in just three years.

The practice makes a mockery of the comparative pittances paid to national leaders which seems standard across nations like the US, Britain, Australia, Singapore and so on. Even his detractors would no doubt agree that Kevin Rudd is worth more than the less than $400,000 his salary provides. A strange phenomenon to be at that level and still have a wife who earns more than you!

It would be churlish to suggest former leaders should not be paid very handsomely for the speeches they give, though many of the amounts charged and paid verge on the obscene. What is really worrying, however, are the consultancies these ex heads of state undertake and just what they do for the exorbitant fees they charge. While the fee income may be disclosed, there is scant detail on just what was discussed or done to provide a benefit, often apparently worth in the millions, for various clients. There are some very dark corners, indeed.

The mounting evidence suggests these leaders are utilising contacts made in office to recoup their potential loss of salary while leading their nations. The corollary is that they may also manipulate their decisions or actions while in office to secure a possible future reward. The notion of a nation’s most senior official being prone to a form of bribery is very sobering. Yet it is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which this could easily happen. When standards of honesty such as ‘I did not have relations with that girl’ are the benchmark, it is hard to maintain faith without some measure of enforceability.

The venality of the finance sector was exposed for all to see as the Global Financial Crisis unfolded. But it was too late to prevent it. We would be foolish to allow something similar to take place in politics when we can already see disturbing signs of the need for change.