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Editorial: Unravelling ECJ consensus?

Published:Monday | November 9, 2015 | 11:00 AM

The People's National Party (PNP) risks creating a messy situation, similar to when there was little confidence in Jamaica's electoral system and voting was often a literal blood sport in which people died.

The country, by and large, extricated itself from that putrid environment with the creation, 36 years ago, of the Electoral Advisory Committee, which has since been transformed into the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), an entity accountable to Parliament.

Essentially, through that body, governments and, by extension, the ruling parties gave up control of the management of electoral arrangements, ceding this authority to a body on which they have representation, but where the weight of numbers and influence rests with independent appointees.

What is significant about the ECJ, and perhaps unique in global governance arrangements, is not only that decisions tend to be on the basis of consensus, but that Jamaica has developed a legislative convention in which any of its decisions that require the force of law are approved by Parliament on a bipartisan basis, without amendments.

This approach appears, on the face of it, to impinge on the supremacy of Parliament, as the often loud and errant, but occasionally right, Everald Warmington has in the past observed. But it has worked because Jamaicans have developed confidence in the integrity of the ECJ and seen the benefits of their efforts. Constituency boundaries are no longer gerrymandered, ballot boxes are unlikely to be stolen, and scores of people no longer die in campaigns.

It is understandable, in the circumstance, why many people view with unease the announcement by the PNP, via Phillip Paulwell, the minister for electoral matters, that the party no longer embraces state funding for political parties, presumably as proposed in two bills that are now before Parliament on the recommendation of the ECJ. They fear that this could be the start of an erosion of the much-vaunted consensus that surrounds the ECJ.

 

SPECIFIC CRITERIA

 

In one of the bills for the registration of political parties, they, if Parliament votes the money, could receive matching funds of up to 40 per cent of their previous year's income if they meet specific criteria, including producing audited accounts and operating with greater transparency. In the other, election candidates could recoup up to a similar proportion of their expenditure on a campaign, on the basis of the number of votes they receive.

It is not clear which one, or whether it is both, of these provisions the PNP now opposes. Andrew Holness, the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), had said that his party would opt out of financing under the former, although he did not oppose the proposed law.

The emerging consensus between the PNP and JLP, it seems, is that there is no appetite among taxpayers to fund political parties, although we suspect that part of their concern is the demand for transparency that would accompany money from the public purse.

We agree with Dorothy Pine-McLarty, the ECJ chairman, that it wouldn't be right for the commission at this stage, with the bills already before the House, to revisit its recommendation - if that is the intention of the PNP. If Parliament having perused the bill, in its wisdom wants to revert the provision to the ECJ, so be it. But then, we will also want to hear all the reasons why.