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Editorial: Code of conduct on political money

Published:Monday | September 28, 2015 | 12:00 AM

After years of public prompting and circumlocution by Jamaica's political parties, the Portia Simpson Miller administration says it will table a campaign finance bill in October.

This newspaper, being among those who have campaigned for such a law, welcomes the move. We, nonetheless, caution against over-optimism. For it is unlikely that legislation debated now will be ready for, and applicable to, the next general election. We, therefore, urge campaigners to begin thinking about short-term, back-up initiatives to keep parties and their candidates honest and accountable for the coming poll.

We say this for two reasons. The first is because of the time until Jamaicans are asked to vote. The other is the likely complexity of the legislation and systems and institutional arrangements that will be needed for it to work.

A general election need not be called until December 2016, and could wait a further three months if Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller utilises the grace period allowable under the Constitution. But the political signals from the governing People's National Party are that the election will be much earlier, perhaps before the end of this year, to take advantage of the presumed organisational disarray of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party.

It is not yet clear if the bill to be tabled by Phillip Paulwell, the minister with responsibility for electoral matters, is an omnibus legislation, encompassing the registration and state-funding for the operations of political parties, in addition to a regime to track their financing and of their candidates during elections. The Gleaner, of course, believes that policing campaign finance/contribution is critical, especially in the face of danger of capture of the electoral process by special interests and persons with deep pockets filled with tainted money. In other words, we fear placing Jamaica's democracy on an auction block.

But the regulatory arrangements for campaign financing, as outlined in the 2013 report to Parliament by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), will perforce demand the employment in the office of the director of elections auditing specialists, plus the development of new, sophisticated systems by which parties and candidates report donations and contributions. Staff will have to be skilled in forensic analysis of the data. Training will be necessary.

 

insufficient preparation

 

Hopefully, the ECJ and the director's office have, insofar as is possible, even within constraints of existing budgets, begun some of this preparation. But whatever has been accomplished will hardly be sufficient for an election this year. These observations by no means suggest that we support or endorse any attempt by Mr Paulwell and the Government to postpone the tabling of the bill.

We, however, propose that concurrent with its debate the parties agree, in the context of a code of campaign conduct, to adhere to the letter and spirit of the ECJ's report, which we expect to have been adequately captured in the bill. They should file with the ECJ - and preferably make public - on an ongoing basis, fundraising performance by the central party and individual candidates as well as identifying contributors of benchmark amounts. The public will be able to form judgements.

Further, as GraceKennedy, Sagicor, ICD Group, Scotiabank and Jamaica Money Market Brokers did in 2011, the private sector should publicly declare their contributions. Such transparency is not only a statement of respect for shareholders, but of the country's democracy. It is instructive that the $69.5 million these companies contributed was only 4.6 per cent of the parties' estimated spending for that election.