Hypocrites! - Electoral returns indicate no need to increase campaign ceiling
Arguing that the $10-million limit per person set for spending on campaigning for Parliament is too low, members of the House of Representatives could this week move to increase the figure, possibly to $25 million.
The members of parliament (MP) said last week that the current $10 million is not in keeping with the reality of running a campaign.
But if this is not the height of hypocrisy, then I know not what it should be called. For it is the same MPs who have filed electoral declarations indicating they didn't even have to spend the maximum allowable funds to win their seats in the last election.
AndrÈ Hylton, the MP for Eastern St Andrew, has suggested that the campaign limit should be increased to $15 million. He said seats like his, which are considered marginal, take a lot of money for campaigning.
But this argument rings hollow as Hylton required only $4.4 million in a fiercely contested election to win the seat in 2011 which had been in the hands of the Jamaica Labour Party since 2002.
Few people will deny that Central Manchester was the battleground of battlegrounds in the last election, and the winner, Peter Bunting, spent just over $8 million. His opponent, Danville Walker, a former director of elections, paid scant regard to the law and did not file his return.
A whopping 80 of the 150 candidates have flouted the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) as they have not filed the returns. By law, the returns must be made six weeks after the election.
And many who have filed have revealed that political campaigns need not be costly. For instance, Raymond Pryce did not spend a penny to win North East St Elizabeth.
Ian Hayles (West Hanover) and Derrick Kellier spent less than $200,000; Michael Peart (South Manchester) spent $10,000; Luther Buchanan (East Westmoreland) spent $95,000; JC Hutchinson (North West St Elizabeth) spent $12,000. They all won their seats. Surely, these gentlemen would not have filed misleading information about their spending.
Only one man - Upton Blake, a third-party candidate in South West St Catherine - said he spent the maximum.
But based on the evidence, as contained in the returns filed by candidates, campaigning for Parliament is not that expensive and the current maximum of $10 million per candidate need not be disturbed.
Also, before the parliamentarians get to the point where they seek to increase their spending limits, the MPs who are still in breach of the law must muster the courage to obey to file their returns. Decency and transparency requires no less.
The Parliament should seek to set the maximum limit base on the average of the declaration made by all candidates who contested the last election. This maximum limit should then be indexed to inflation.
And having set the limits, the country should then answer the question about who will pay. The bill before Parliament proposes that the State fund a portion of the cost of campaigns. The rationale is that it would enable people without financial means to offer themselves for Parliament and will serve as a disincentive of getting dirty money into the system.
It is almost guaranteed that Parliament will pass the campaign finance bill with the clause which imposes a requirement on the State to provide money for campaigns. This is because Parliament has allowed itself to be shackled by a convention.
I have never been a fan of this so-called convention, the observation of which interferes with the independence of Parliament.
By virtue of having two persons each on the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), the major political parties craft deals behind close doors which are then brought to Parliament for rubber stamping.
The ECJ and, indeed, its precursor entity, the Electoral Advisory Council, came about as a result of the need to safeguard the democratic process from corruption. That has largely been achieved and was done primarily through the incorporation of those guilty of tainting the system - the political parties - and paying their representatives huge sums in exchange for consensus.
So here it is that the campaign finance bill is proposing that the underserved taxpayers be required to dip further into their pockets to fund election campaigns.
All parliamentarians are expected to fall in line, lest they end up on the wrong side of history for demonstrating independence of thought and voting against the provision.
The new campaign finance bill, which is currently being debated in the House of Representatives, is proposing that taxpayers be called upon to stand up to 40 per cent of the costs of each candidate who is a member of a registered political party.
This could mean at least $504 million being taken out of the Consolidated Fund and given to run general election campaigns, assuming that all candidates for the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party apply for the funding.
The amount, however, could increase if independent candidates make requests for state funding.
Taxpayers currently bear the costs of paying for scrutineers, who examine or inspect electoral activities on behalf of political parties, and provide duty concession for political parties to import vehicles for campaign purposes.
AVAILABILITY OF FUNDS
Phillip Paulwell, the minister with responsibility for electoral affairs, said the availability of funds will determine whether candidates benefit from the funds.
"It is that provision that we are agreeing to include, so it is clear that under the current financing regime, we would not be able to accommodate any such funds from the Consolidated Fund for the near future," Paulwell said.
One cannot deny that there is a place for state funding of political campaigns, but its moment has not yet arrived in Jamaica. First, we must get over the fiscal troubles, and then we have to change the way campaigns are done.
Thus, when the debate continues in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, one can only hope that legislators refuse to be shackled by this so-called convention and seek to make common-sense amendments to the bill.
For example, the bill should contain a clause which makes sustainable economic growth a prerequisite for state funding to be approved Parliament.
The clause could read as follows: "Parliament shall not approve funds for the campaign financing purposes unless there has been economic growth of not less than three per cent in the last two fiscal years, and that economic growth of three per cent or more has been projected for the next three fiscal years".
The aim of this amendment is to make sure that those who are seeking state funding are committed to ensuring sustainable economic growth, even if there is a change of political administration.
Another major amendment that should be considered is to require that no motorcades are held by or on behalf of candidates seeking state funding, and that a series of issues-based, town hall-type campaign meetings, which facilities question and answers, be a requirement for persons seeking the taxpayers money.
The last thing we want is for taxpayers' money to be subsidising beer-drinking, body-protruding, gyrating political campaigns which are now a commonplace in the society.
Hopefully, the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel can draft the proposed amendments in anticipation of one or two enlightened MP pushing for the change.