Fifth column: It's not easy being clean


No politician is safe from suspicion these days, even if they're only playing by the rules

The mote and the beam

In the wake of this year’s Publifin and Samusocial scandals, a new kind of ethics is expected from politicians. This is at odds with the old regulations, which were often rather generous for acting politicians.

This has led to one accusation after another. But the latest in the series backfired spectacularly.

It was the far-right Vlaams Belang that first brought attention to Geert Bourgeois’s pension. He not only receives wages as minister-president of the government of Flanders, but also a pension as former a former councillor in Izegem.

Bourgeois’s annual salary amounts to €253,000, topped up by a monthly pension of €919. The situation is perfectly legal. Bourgeois (pictured) has a right to the pension as he is over 65 and had been a councillor for 12 years.

But to Vlaams Belang, this is irrelevant. After all, Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur did not break the law either, but still had to resign over the Samusocial affair, in which his behaviour was deemed unethical.

The party’s accusation would have gone largely unnoticed, had not SP.A president John Crombez picked it up. Crombez is in the middle of a “clean hands” operation.

He wants to introduce a more ethical politics, in his own troubled party as well as others. He has asked other parties to support him, but is mostly met with ridicule.

The news of Bourgeois’ pension was an occasion for Crombez to repeat his plea for an income cap for politicians. "Bourgeois should understand that people do not accept that he receives an extra €1,000 of taxpayers’ money on top of his monthly €10,000,” he said in an interview.

But it soon emerged that Louis Tobback, a fellow socialist, not only receives wages as mayor of Leuven, he also receives a parliamentary pension of several thousand euros a month. Tobback refused to comment, leaving Crombez dangling.

“The mote and the beam,” secretary of state Theo Francken (N-VA) commented on Twitter, referring to the biblical expression. 

Some observers have warned that the constant demand for squeaky clean ethics will lead to a situation in which all politicians appear suspect, even the ones that play by all the (old) rules. Still, there is no end to the number of “scandals” – big and small – that find their way to the press, leaving no one in politics unharmed – whether they are the accused or the accuser.