Beyond the World news headlines
Expenses: They order this matter differently in Sweden
A scandal about expenses claimed by British members of parliament has damaged the already low standing of British politicians and helped Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party to its worst opinion poll showing since polling began.
The MPs argue that what they are doing is within the rules – correct, but missing the point that it is out of line with public sentiment especially at a time of national belt-tightening.
While some of the claims run into thousands of pounds for mortgage interest or home decoration, others are for trivial sums for items like dogfood or, bizarrely, a tampon claimed by a male MP. Hardly the stuff of kleptocracy.
But in some countries elected officials face savage retribution if their expense claims do not meet public standards.
Take Sweden. A prosperous, egalitarian country ranked joint 1st (with Denmark and New Zealand) out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s annual survey of corruption. Under constitutionally protected freedom of information rules, even everyone’s tax returns are in the public domain.
Elected in 1982 to Sweden’s parliament for the Social Democrats as the country’s youngest MP, Mona Sahlin rose quickly through the ministerial ranks. When in 1995 Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson announced his intention to resign, she was the sole candidate to replace him.
But in October 1995 it emerged that Sahlin had used her government credit card to buy a bar of chocolate.
There would have been nothing wrong with this if Sahlin had paid the money back. And in Sweden everyone uses a credit card for everything because the government discourages the use of cash to prevent evasion of its high, but largely accepted, taxes.
But the spotlight was now on Sahlin. In the ensuing “Toblerone Affair”, further revelations showed she had used the card to pay for hired cars for private use, had not paid her television licence, had failed to pay parking fines, and had hired a childminder without declaring it for taxes — a misdemeanour that can also be career-limiting for U.S. politicians.
In November Sahlin withdrew her candidacy.
Finance Minister Göran Persson was chosen instead, becoming prime minister in March 1996, a position he held for another 10 years.
Sahlin’s career was not completely over. She had remained an influential figure within the Social Democrats, returning to the cabinet in 2002, and after Persson lost the September 2006 election and resigned his party posts, Sahlin was elected party leader in March 2007.
But her career had been set back 10 years and she may never be prime minister.
PHOTO CREDIT: credit cards REUTERS/Jim Bourg
PHOTO CREDIT: toblerone REUTERS/Ruben Sprich
PHOTO CREDIT: Sahlin 1995 REUTERS/STR New
PHOTO CREDIT: Sahlin 2007 REUTERS/Scanpix