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Billionaires’ club

Published Jun 18, 2017 07:23am

BEING the people’s representative is a rich man or woman’s job in Pakistan. The publication by the ECP of the statements of assets and liabilities of parliamentarians and their spouses and dependents has once again confirmed the obvious. Thanks to a handful of parliamentarians who have the decency to file financial statements that are relatively believable, it appears that parliament is a billionaires’ club with a smattering of mere multimillionaires. For parliamentarians willing to give an indication of their true wealth, a relatively honest statement of assets and liabilities can be a double-edged sword: it fulfils a legal duty, but exposes them to media ridicule and public denunciation as out-of-touch elitists. Perhaps parliamentarians who are willing to give an indication of their extreme wealth can be encouraged to shame their colleagues into submitting more believable statements. The public deserves to know the true scale of the politicians’ wealth and the almost immoral gap between the people and their democratic representatives.

Why, though, are so many parliamentarians able to get away with making patently false claims about their wealth? The ECP had considered the possibility of randomly auditing some of the declarations, but the suggestion appears to have gone nowhere. Until the ECP is empowered to verify the statements submitted to it, and not simply compile and publish them in the official gazette, parliamentarians have little to fear in submitting potentially false financial statements. The electoral reforms that parliament has pledged to enact before the next general election could help address the issue, but the problem is undeniably complex. It is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, to give the ECP the resources to establish the accuracy of parliamentarians’ financial declarations. The alternative is for the ECP to obtain the services of institutions such as the FBR, SECP, NAB and FIA, but that would require the agencies to be able to operate independently. Events elsewhere at this time have made clear the problem with the ‘independence’ of investigatory bodies.

Yet, the current system is clearly broken and continuing with it untenable. A possible solution could be for the ECP, or members of the public via the ECP, to be able to demand of parliamentarians explanations for political or lifestyle expenditures. If a rally is held, how much did it cost and who paid for it? If a parliamentarian lives in a palatial home, how are the utilities paid for? Simultaneously, the practice of gifts being received by parliamentarians should be made illegal. So-called gifts are an obvious means for corrupt practices and have no place in a democratic system. Certainly, there will be loopholes in any new system and they will be exploited. But the status quo cannot be allowed to continue. If parliament is unwilling to legislate change, the ECP can suggest its own reforms and public pressure can be brought to bear on parliament to do the right thing.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2017