Straight, No Chaser: Transparency getting murky
Ask most people about political corruption and they will probably conjure up an image of late-night meetings in smoke-filled rooms, suitcases full of money changing hands, ministers feathering their own nests, slush funds etc.
They probably also associate these things with countries far from these shores, where dictators hold sway or the rule of law is lax or non-existent.
Not so squeaky clean
Danes love to bring up the fact that they are one of – if not the – least corrupt countries in the world. But earlier this year, Denmark received a rap over the knuckles from Transparency International.
In the organisation’s yearly poll ranking 180 countries according to their perceived level of public sector corruption, Denmark slipped down to second place after having been joint-first since 2012.
Why was that? The report mentioned several specific things: gifts for municipal IT contracts, tax authority SKAT’s incompetence in giving away 12 billion kroner to fraudsters, a lack of transparency over private cash for political parties, and no register of lobbyists.
Denmark is one of the only countries in the civilized world where it is not compulsory for MPs to register their business interests.
Back in 2012, a register of politicians’ meetings with lobbyists was introduced with the laudable aim of keeping tabs on who met with what pressure group. However, it had an extremely short life-span, being dropped again after only a couple of months. Why are Danish politicians so afraid of transparency?
A cautionary tale
As a consequence of the Freedom of Information Act, the UK press in 2009 was full of stories about MPs’ widespread misuse of parliamentary allowances and expenses for anything from cleaning moats, erecting duck houses, employing family members in non-existent jobs etc.
Some were even doing up the London flats they were entitled to in order to be near the Houses of Parliament so that they could sell them later at a huge personal profit. Tony Blair’s expenses were shredded ‘by mistake’ when they were the subject of a legal bid to have them published.
Why should anyone think Danish MPs are fundamentally more honest – especially if there is even less scrutiny? Just look at all the scrapes current PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen has been in, with creative use of expenses, and receiving gifts, to name but two.
Join the club
There is also the matter of the ‘business clubs’ that exist to raise money for political parties. There is only limited transparency there as the rules allow anonymous contributions not exceeding 20,000 kroner. Politiken estimated that at least six of the candidates running for mayor around the country recently were supported by clubs such as these.
During 2015, Maersk gave 4 million kroner to Venstre, Konservative, Liberal Alliance, Dansk Folkeparti and Radikale. Coincidentally, these were the parties negotiating a new contract for North Sea exploration. The company ended up with a tax relief package worth 5 billion kroner up until 2025.
An ailing political culture
None of this is illegal. But it could be argued that it is not healthy for the political system in general.
When politicians, parties and ministers accept money from big business or trade unions, how can we be sure they are impartial?
Maybe it’s time the Danish public woke up and started seriously agitating for these practices to be abolished. In addition to open registers of interests, private party funding could be scrapped altogether – from whatever source.
Then we’d all know where we stand.
An Englishman abroad, Stephen has lived and worked in Denmark since 1978. His interests include music, art, cooking, real ale, politics and cats.