Donation disclosure an urgent priority

Just as the internet has changed the conduct of campaigning for this election cycle, it has, too, changed the way parties are soliciting and obtaining funds for their campaigns. 

A front-page story on the Wednesday edition of the Samoa Observer revealed the extent of the new trend (“F.A.S.T. raises $37,000 on Australian crowdfunding site”). 

We do not intend to single out the Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party in writing this. And the internet is merely a medium that speeds up a phenomenon that has been going on in Samoan politics for years, with its facility for fast and anonymous money transfers. 

But these recent occurrences bring to the forefront an issue in Samoan politics that should have long since been addressed the issue of regulating money’s influence on politics. 

The apparent pouring in of donations from overseas itself raises an interesting point. 

Two-thirds of the world’s countries ban donations made by foreign individuals entirely, while other democracies such as New Zealand cap them at NZD$1,500 (WST$2,700) a donation.

On this specific question, we do not take a view. We acknowledge that we are perhaps unique among nations in the relationship that exists between Samoans living overseas and their home country. Our diaspora is many times the size of our local population. 

The fears that money from foreign nationals might be used to influence the outcome of an election that are present in countries such as the United States or Australia do not apply in the same way to Samoa; closing the gate to foreign money entirely would fit the context of our democracy. 

But the question of whether M.P.s can be influenced or even outright bought by a generous donor is a conversation we need to have as a nation and need to have urgently.

There is no shortage of motives for moneyed interests to make political donations in the expectation that they receive something in return from M.P.s.

So-called influence buying is a concern even in highly regulated democratic countries - and there is nothing that will ever completely satisfy concerns that it is taking place. 

But by establishing a framework for disclosing who has donated to whom we at the very least set a legal benchmark for political transparency; a standard against which candidates can be held.

Long-existing practices of making cash donations to M.P.s and not recording them are now being replicated on candidates’ fundraising sites where donors can identify themselves as little more than ‘Anonymous’ or any name of their choosing. 

That is why the Legislative Assembly must make it a matter of priority to produce a working set of rules governing donations in the next Parliament.

At present, the total absence of controls or regulations of any kind does little to give voters confidence that national politics is clean.

Transparency is essential to a functioning democracy. 

The most regulated of the world’s political systems take this value seriously to the point of obsessiveness. But they only do so because they recognise the importance of financial disclosures to clean politics. 

In such countries, lawmakers must disclose airline upgrades; hold mortgages or loans of any kind; and even declare and place a cash value estimate even on tokens of appreciation received for speaking at community events. 

United States Presidents cannot even keep gifts they receive from foreign leaders; they are deemed the property of the public.

Cultures of accountability are built over many decades and supported by investigating institutions with the power to audit and enforce rules. 

We are not anticipating that the same high standards can or be achieved by Samoa in any short frame of time. 

Promoting accountability is not easily achieved when standards have not been the norm for so long. 

We see examples of this in the lack of success in existing attempts to require the disclosure of Cabinet Ministers’ business interests. 

Laws requiring them to disclose interests in any businesses have been flouted with regularity, and M.P.s’ ongoing holdings have been disclosed by reports in this newspaper. 

Matters are further complicated by the unique position money occupies in our culture: what might be deemed a gift by some would be seen as a donation by others.

But first steps are essential on the path to reforming democracy for the benefit of Samoan voters. 

That should begin with a legally enforceable code that makes disclosing one’s financial interests a pre-requisite of entering public life.

When voters inquire as to how a party or their M.P. voted on a given issue they deserve the right to form a view on whether a conflict of interest - real or percieved - was part of the mix of potential motivating factors.

When they decide whether to switch their votes to a new political party they ought to know where the majority of its funding is sourced from so that they may form their own judgments about whether they may be beholden to interests of any kind. 

By writing these words, we make no accusations against any one party or M.P. We point no fingers whatever. 

But it is our firm belief that Samoan voters deserve to know who is funding a candidate before they cast their votes for them. And that is a benefit that will be shared across our politics. 

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