President: Audit office cannot easily take on party finances monitoring

Kersti Kaljulaid on Tuesday's edition of "Esimene stuudio". Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

President Kersti Kaljulaid says the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK), which the coalition wishes to abolish, is a valuable regulatory body whose role could not be adequately taken on by the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) as the government's proposed bill would require.

"The ERJK is certainly not an ideal, perfect, auditing-only body, but it has great value as a self-energizing body," Kaljulaid, who worked for many years at the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg immediately prior to being elected president in late 2016, said, appearing on ETV political discussion show "Esimene stuudio" Monday night.

"The majority of parliamentary parties would say that self-regulation is neither necessary nor possible. Either way, both explanations [for abolishing the ERJK] are very poor," the president went on.

The coalition consists of Center, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa. Reform and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) are in opposition.

The current coalition wants to abolish the ERJK and place its former tasks in the hands of the National Audit Office, arguing both that the latter would be more efficient and the former was biased given it is headed up by an SDE member.

Critics say the timing of the move came ahead of various fines totaling over a million euros due to the Center Party in the fall, mainly concerning illicit party donations. The bill to remove the ERJK would also put an expiry date on claims against parties.

The president said the National Audit Office taking on the role would be problematic both related to its intended role and its expertise.

"The function of the National Audit Office is not written into the constitution in vain. It now seems to me that the proposed change would complicate the work of the audit office in the future, with all the technical problems arising from the fact that the office can oversee the use of budgetary resources, but not of private funds (i.e. private donors-ed.).

The president pointed out the head of the audit office, Janar Holm, himself has expressed concerns about his authority's potential new responsibility.

"I can support Janar Holm, who was worried about this change," she said.

Economy: We can't borrow indefinitely

President Kaljulaid said she agreed with the assessment of both the National Audit Office and the Bank of Estonia that if the government had not spent so much in previous years, it would not have been necessary to take on so many loan burdens now.

"If you have not survived in the past, you will need to borrow much less in the current situation. But now we have in mind that this is not the final ever world crisis. If we borrow now, to the maximum of the Maastricht criterion, and If we are hit by a surprise (like the coroanvirus pandemic-ed.) again, this way of reacting is not available to us indefinitely, and in every crisis, the responders should think about this next time as well," said the president, who once worked as economic adviser to former prime minister Mart Laar.

The government has opted to borrow close to €5 billion for 2020-2021, as a result of the pandemic and its economic aftershocks.

The president contrasted this figure with earlier figures touted of around a billion or a billion and a half, adding that the first billion of the current five could easily be frittered away without it being clear where it had gone and stressing that the current loan repayments would likely be a millstone for future generations.

The government was unable to pass the ERJK abolition bill before the Riigikogu broke up for summer last week, partly as the result of some filibustering by SDE, which saw them present 50,000 proposed amendments to the bill.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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