INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - Bush's openness pledge is transparent lip-service

Openness and honesty are key to keeping the public on the side of American business and the US government, argues leading American commentator Paul Holmes.

George Bush understands the value of transparency. Last year it was one of the buzzwords of the incoming administration.

'I think we've been increasingly open and transparent,' said vice-president Dick Cheney, referring to discussion of his heart problems. The president himself told a reporters' round table: 'There needs to be rule of law, strong accounting procedures and honest and transparent government.'

More recently, discussing the need for better corporate accountability in the wake of the Enron scandal, Bush called for a return to 'basic capitalism', which he defined as an economic system that rests on full disclosure.

'In a system based on the willingness to take risk, investors need to know the true nature of the risks,' Bush said.

Under the Bush plan, companies will be required to disclose critical information faster. For example, investors will need to be notified of any stock trades within two days. Serious penalties will be levied on firms that mislead shareholders or employees, barring CEOs who 'clearly abuse their power' from serving in public companies.

Implicit in all this is the recognition that transparency is a good thing.

How puzzling, then, that the same administration is doing all it can to prevent the light of public scrutiny falling on its own decision-making processes.

The vice-president is fighting to ensure the public remains in the dark about how policy is formulated. Cheney is engaged in a battle with the General Accounting Office, which was forced to sue the administration to gain access to documents detailing the inner workings of the White House energy task force. This body had met dozens of industry figures before urging controversial changes to national energy policy.

Cheney is claiming his right to executive privilege, but it's a right that should be exercised with restraint.

If one believes in transparency, one should understand that other branches of government - and the public - have a legitimate interest in understanding how important decisions get made.

Cheney's refusal to share this information with voters casts suspicion on the whole process. If the information is accurate and the arguments cogent and persuasive, there's no reason to be coy.

Corporations should welcome greater transparency in Washington just as they should on Wall Street, because they have a vested interest in restoring public confidence in major institutions.

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