Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Campaign finance bill worthless as is

Published:Monday | January 25, 2016 | 1:00 AM
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Peter Phillips, listen keenly during a pariamentary sitting.
Marlene Malahoo Forte (foreground), Jamaica Labour Party standard bearer for West Central St James, and Juliet Cuthbert Flynn.
Lambert Brown
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A major lacuna has been cemented in the overhyped campaign finance bill, which makes the legislation supremely useless.

The bill has been constructed on the premise that money wins elections and that an unchecked flow of money could lead to a corruption of democracy.

While I do not agree totally with the foundation on which the law is being created, I recognise the mischief that it is seeking to cure.

So my disappointment in the bill is not one of opportunity lost, but rather the failure of the framers of the document to recognise the extent to which the entire framework is made worthless because of the way in which some key terms are defined.

One of those terms is the campaign period, which starts after 54 months of an administration's term has elapsed, or such period as determined by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), subject to approval by Parliament.

The campaign period may also start on the day an election is announced and ends on the day after election.

Now, it is an open secret that the country has been in election mode since last August. Several candidates have raised funds and have spent it doing things such as wrapping campaign vehicles, buying shirts and armbands, buying and distributing livestock and beasts, garbage bins and black tanks; and everything we tend to see in an election campaign.

However, if Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller chooses to delay the calling of an election until December, when it is due, this worthless bill cannot apply to anything being done thus far.

In fact, without an election being announced, the campaign period will start on June 29, 2016. The ECJ, the body that oversees elections, may have a view that the period should start at an earlier date, maybe February 1; but unless Parliament agrees, their views are worthless.

Now, I am not a fan of the ECJ, but to subject the campaign period to a parliamentary vote succeeds in doing nothing but make the Commission impotent in regulating campaign financing.

So when Lambert Brown describes the bill as "a feel-good bill" and a "waste of parliamentary time", it is hard not to agree with him.

 

HOODWINKED

 

Jamaicans are being hoodwinked into thinking this campaign finance regime is the saviour for democracy, but truth be told, it has more holes than an oversized fish net.

There is absolutely no good that can come from monitoring campaign spending only six months from when an election is constitutionally due or when an election is announced 'til the day after polls.

Brown argued strongly in the Senate on Friday that there is no evidence of any direct correlation between the size of a party or a candidate's war chest and the election outcome. Like Brown, I believe we need to credit Jamaicans for their ability to think and decide whether to vote for or against a candidate or to stay home.

Clearly, the supporters of this bill are convinced that Jamaicans can be bought and sold. On the contrary, I think the focus of the bill should not be so much how much is spent, when and by whom, but rather the use of funds during electoral campaigns.

So, for example, the law already criminalises vote buying and selling. That provision ought to be strengthened. This carries a penalty of up to five years in jail, and a candidate may be barred from being eligible for election for seven years if convicted.

In addition, the misuse of campaign donations should be criminalised. People should go to prison for taking donations and using them to build houses and buy cars. The current bill, while frowning on misuse of funds, does not make it a criminal offence. Joke business!

Marlene Malahoo Forte also made a compelling argument for the candidate's declaration form to be amended. At present, no candidate can spend more that $10,000 for personal living expenses such as rental of premises for campaign purposes and $2,000 for petty expenses.

One would have thought that, having made several amendments to the Representation of the People Act, Section 57 would have received some attention.

One wonders why the handsomely paid - $9 million apiece - ECJ commissioners haven't moved to amend this aspect of the law instead of wasting time with this toothless, hole-filled campaign financing bill.

daraine.luton@gleanerjm.com