Hong Kong must find a way for public to monitor donations to political parties

Rules governing funding are far too opaque, leaving the people to wonder just who is pulling the strings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 1:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 1:04am

Sorry is the hardest word, even more so for politicians. So when Labour Party chief Lee Cheuk-yan and the League of Social Democrats’ Leung Kwok-hung apologised for the way they had handled political donations, there must be lessons to learn. Lee and Leung received HK$1.5 million and HK$500,000, respectively, from media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. But they claimed that they received the money only on behalf of their parties, and therefore had not followed Legislative Council rules to declare the donations. After a year-long probe, a committee ruled that the pair had not breached any rules.

The existing rules on declaration of donations cover individuals rather than political parties. But it is a fact that Lee and Leung had received the money. Lee kept the first sum of

HK$500,000 in his personal account for eight months before transferring it to the party. He and Leung both apologised for not handling the donations properly and causing confusion.

The declaration rules are made to enhance monitoring of lawmakers’ performance. They enable the public to judge whether individual members are acting under the influence of their donors. But the mechanism only functions when individual members proactively disclose their source of donations.

Even though the committee concluded that no rules had been violated, the non-disclosure is still in breach of the spirit of transparency and accountability expected of legislators. With more lawmakers affiliated with political parties now, the influence of donations is a valid issue. There is no reason why donations received on behalf of parties can be withheld from public monitoring.

The people rightly expect the highest standards of conduct from public officers. Our lawmakers often say government officials should be whiter than white but, regrettably, they excuse themselves for behaviour that falls into a grey area. The double standards make a mockery of their role as watchdogs of the government’s performance.

The fact that political parties are still registered as companies says a lot of our political immaturity. While a party law can promote healthy development of party politics in the long run, legislation takes time to enact. The lack of consensus among parties make such a law even more remote.

Since donations are the lifeblood of political parties, the problem may surface again. There should be better safeguards to strengthen transparency and monitoring of political funding.