Editorial: Circumventing campaign reform
Not unexpectedly, Jamaican politicians are already seeking avenues around the very modest attempt to curb the free-for-all in raising cash for election campaigns and for some level of accountability about how that money is spent. Brazenly, they even want the loopholes legislated.
So, at Tuesday's opening of parliamentary debate on a campaign reform law, several members of parliament baulked at the J$10-million limit, as was proposed by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) that each candidate would be allowed to spend on his campaign to win a parliamentary seat. Andrew Holness, the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) as well as leader of the Opposition, was among the whingers, but the peeve is bipartisan.
A number of things are worth observing about this reaction. One of them is that, until ECJ suggested this increased figure, the amount that candidates were legally permitted to spend on their campaigns was J$3 million, although few of them, if anyone, is believed to have adhered to that number. The handful that even bothered, in accordance with the law, to file reports, are suspected of fudging their expenditure.
Second, the ECJ includes membership from the two major political parties - Mr Holness' JLP and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's People's National Party (PNP). Their experience helped in arriving at constituency campaign figure. Further, it is a convention of Parliament that legislation based on propels from the ECJ, thus benefiting from the consensus of the parties, are never amended. An amendment now would be a departure from that convention.
A third point is that with 63 parliamentary constituencies, it means that cumulatively, the cumulative allowable spending for the candidates of either party in a general election would be J$630 million. But that is not all. The parties, as central institutions, would each be allowed to spend a further J$630 million on a campaign, or a total of J$1.26 billion per party.
Put another way, the law would allow the PNP and JLP to spend, combined, J$2.52 billion on an election, which, formally, would be the period between the announcing of a general election and 24 hours before the vote, or five weeks before the end of the life of the Parliament.
As it is, that is an awful lot of money, which opens two potentially dangerous consequences: the opportunity for people involved in election campaigns to siphon money to unintended purposes; and that Jamaica's democracy is becoming merely an expensive commodity, for sale to people with the deepest pockets and/or in pursuit of special interests. That is why we support legislative limits on campaign spending and insist that the efforts to raise the threshold should not be countenanced.
But these are not the only weaknesses with the bill before Parliament, as recent events have highlighted. There is a clear problem with the definition of a campaign period, and therefore, the time over which parties will have to account for their efforts to bulge their election war chests. For example, Prime Minister Simpson Miller has just spent 10 weeks taking Jamaica into a campaign for an election that was expected in December. Both parties would have raised a lot of money for that exercise.
Mrs Miller, however, pulled back. The process will resume next year. More money will be raised. People with deep pockets, and special interests, will be called on again.