Külli Taro: Plan to change party financing supervision devious
Did those seeking the dissolution of the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee believe it would go unnoticed or are they simply not interested in the reaction of the public and experts? If the coalition no longer cares about public opinion, democracy is not working," Külli Taro says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
Public attention has been paid mainly to the question of who exercises supervision. However, the bill now in Riigikogu proceedings would also introduce fundamental changes to what is supervised and the consequences of violations.
The Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) exercises full control over compliance with requirements provided in the Political Parties Act, irrespective of source of income. The National Audit Office is a state institution and public sector auditor. Political parties are not part of the state organization. Both the Constitution and the National Audit Office Act give the latter the right to only oversee use of public funds.
Parties receive money from the state, as private donations, from membership fees and real estate transactions. State support made up 71 percent of the budget of the Reform Party but just 46 percent of that of Isamaa last year.
If the National Audit Office is authorized to only supervise money from the state budget, a considerable part of party financing would not be subject to control. It is already difficult for the audit office to supervise organizations a part of the income of which comes from the private sector that it is not allowed to audit. Whereas expenses do not carry a label to show whether public or private sector money was used.
In principle, it would be possible to authorize the audit office to supervise all of party financing. However, the bill sent to the parliament clearly has not gone down that path. Passing the bill in its current form would undoubtedly create disputes over what the audit office can and cannot control.
It has been asked whether giving this type of additional tasks to the National Audit Office would even be constitutional. Because the latter includes an exhaustive list of the audit office's tasks. It does not mention political parties or private funds, nor does it say the institution could be given additional tasks in legislation.
The Supreme Court has already deliberated over giving the National Audit Office additional tasks not mentioned in the Constitution. In 2009, it was deliberated whether it was constitutional that the audit office was given powers to audit administration and use of municipal assets by local governments.
The Supreme Court found that while the Constitution absolutely does not allow the Riigikogu to narrow the audit office's tasks, giving it additional ones is not out of the question if there is good reason. However, these additional tasks need to be tied to the audit office's main activities and cannot obstruct their performance.
The Supreme Court found that giving the National Audit Office the additional task of supervising use of municipal funds is constitutional.
Supreme Court justice Indrek Koolmeister wrote in his individual opinion that the powers of constitutional institutions cannot be broadly interpreted. It is, among other things, a guarantee of the balance of powers and legitimacy of public authority to avoid excess powers being concentrated in one place.
It remains doubtful whether a good enough reason exists for putting the National Audit Office in charge of party financing supervision and whether we can be sure it will not get in the way of its main functions. What is certain is that this new task would be different from the institution's main activity and alter its nature as a traditional audit organization. It is furthermore not insignificant that the auditor general does not regard it a good idea.
Another noteworthy aspect is that the bill seems to make no mention of fines for delay that have been quite troublesome for parties that have broken the law. These fines were ordered if parties failed to comply with precepts to transfer illicit donations to the state budget. These hefty fines for delay have functioned as a highly effective mechanisms to ensure compliance with the law. Because precepts issued based on the Political Parties Act are not compulsorily enforceable.
Current political parties financing supervision could undoubtedly be rendered more effective. No party to proceedings has questioned that.
Most worrying, however, is the question of whether those behind the bill believed it would go unnoticed or are simply not interested in the reaction of the public and experts. The first is unlikely, while the second would be very bad for democracy. If the coalition no longer cares for public opinion, democracy is not working.
This is just the time for such devious plans. Estonia will not have an election for the next two years. This has happened only once before since Estonia regained its independence, in 1997-1998. If the bet is that the voter has a short memory, this is the time to put all manner of devious plans in motion. The next time voters can intervene will not be until local government council elections in the fall of 2021.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski