Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Power for the politicians!?

Published:Friday | October 30, 2015 | 10:00 AM

The word 'democracy' derives from the Greek language, and means the 'power or rule of the people. Since it is difficult for the populace to rule directly, they elect surrogates who govern on their behalf. When the surrogates come to believe that they rule in their own interests, a democracy is in trouble.

The test of true democracy is how well a government acts in the interest of the people, especially the poor and the powerless and the vulnerable, rather than on behalf of special-interest groups, particularly the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged.

Tuesday last, the Government tabled a campaign-finance bill seeking to amend the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) to regulate the financing of political parties and candidates. On the face of it, such a bill should be welcomed as advancing democracy, for it does add a modicum of transparency to the process. But in reality, it promotes the interests of political parties, candidates, and the wealthy who make donations to them. Secrecy in political donations opens the door to political corruption, which only aids politicians and political parties to gain and hold on to power, while becoming surrogates of special interest groups.

First, the amendments to ROPA require the parties to declare only 'campaign contributions', i.e., only contributions made during the campaign period - not all contributions; the campaign period begins the day on which the date of an election is announced and ends 24 hours before election day.

So, political contributions made in the run-up do not have to be declared, nor do donations made on election day or afterwards. The parties can rack up expenses and accept pledges for future contributions in the full knowledge that these donations will not be considered 'campaign contributions' and so will remain secret. What a travesty of justice!

Second, only campaign contributions of $250,000 or more need to be declared, which means that the amendments to ROPA do not require full disclosure. The loophole that this creates is wide: I could make five campaign contributions, each of J$200,000, but in the names of five different persons; none would need to be declared. What a travesty of Justice!

Third, the amendments to ROPA require the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) to publish only campaign contributions of $1 million or more.

I predict that if and when these amendments to ROPA come into force, the parties - quite legally - will be able to say that they received few - if any - campaign contributions at all! And I predict that the ECJ will have no campaign contributions to make public. What a travesty of justice!

These amendments to ROPA tabled on Tuesday will not advance democracy, but will further bury it! Any person or group which supports them will be complicit in the denial of true democracy to the Jamaican people.

I am pleased to see that the day after the amendments were tabled, William Mahfood, president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), called for an end to secret political contributions; yesterday's Gleaner quotes him: "The time has come where we need complete transparency in all areas of politics and governance." The Gleaner reports that "he insisted that every donation should be publicly disclosed".

Well said, Mr Mahfood, and well said, PSOJ! Do not let our democracy be hijacked by criminals and special interests!

The Upper House of the Parliament of Jamaica is currently debating three bills which, if passed, would see the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) replaced as Jamaica's final court of appeal by the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice.

An important question to be answered is: Will this move be in the best interests of the ordinary people of Jamaica, or are some special interests being served?

I support an end to neo-colonialism. Prove to us, Mr Politician, that decolonisation is what you are really after, and not a grab for more power!

Will installing the CCJ as Jamaica's final court of appeal mean equal or greater justice for Jamaicans than we receive now under the JCPC? Or will it put in place a court more easily influenced by our politicians?

I have seen too much to trust our current set of leaders with more power. Maybe later!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.