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Editorial: Bad move to hike campaign spending cap

Published:Thursday | January 14, 2016 | 1:00 AM

With the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) having submitted to the will of the Gangs of Gordon House, Andre Hylton, the sitting Member of Parliament for Eastern St Andrew - or whoever else - can legitimately splash about substantially more cash than would have been allowable at the previous go to retain his seat in Parliament.

The irony of this is its handing of the advantage to deep-pocketed politicians instead of levelling the playing field and steering Jamaica's democracy from being among the best that money can buy, which was a key aim of the campaign reform legislation. Hopefully, the initial staggering steps towards financial transparency won't falter, too.

Recall that when the administration, last October, put before the House amendments to the Representation of the People Act, it maintained a J$10 million cap on the amount that a general election candidate could spend during a campaign period, which is from the date of the announcement of an election to the day before the vote, or the end of the 54th month of the life of Parliament. That cap was set four years ago, at the time of the 2011 general election, and represented a more than 233 per cent increase on the previous J$3 million.

On the basis of that proposal, a political party's candidates in a general election would, combined, have been able to spend J$630 million, on their campaigns, would have been separate from an equivalent amount that was allowed to the central party. In other words, a political party could have spent J$1.26 billion on its campaign, not including any expenditure undertaken prior to the formal campaign period. That, in this newspaper's opinion, is a lot of money. Between them, the two big parties, the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party would have been allowed election spending of over J$2.5 billion.

But for the members of the Gangs of Gordon House it was not enough. The likes of Mr Hylton want to have the right to throw around more money to entice voters, supposedly because inflation has made elections more expensive. The ECJ, according to Phillip Paulwell, who has responsibility for electoral matters, acquiesced to the call to push the candidate's pending limit to $J15 million - a 50 per cent hike that is more than double the rate of inflation since 2011.

 

REAL CONCERNS

Expectedly, spending money in a grab for political power, like doling out political pork, is among the few areas of bi-partisan consensus. So, Mr Hylton, when he raised his concerns about the cap in November not only spoke for colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, but clearly articulated the real concerns. He said: "When you consider constituencies like mine, which is a battleground area, where the seat can go either side and there is high competition, a lot of resources are needed." Among the things those candidates have to spend on, he explained, were the number of people "offering themselves to work before and during an election". We would have preferred an argument about winning heavily weighted on better policies and programmes.

With proposed upward adjustments, candidates for each political party will now be able to spend J$945 million on their campaigns.

That requires a greater level of transparency about how they acquire their funding and how it is spent. The law should be adjusted in this regard.