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Editorial: Private sector should disclose contributions

Published:Thursday | February 4, 2016 | 2:08 PM

The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) can't compel its members to transparency in their campaign contributions to the island's political parties and their candidates, but we hope that they will be persuaded by the logic of the argument of their president, William Mahfood, that it would be good for democracy.

Indeed, the private sector has an opportunity, if it grasps it, to begin to sketch broader contours for Jamaica's political financing legislation even before the coming into force of a limited version of the law that was recently approved by Parliament.

As it now stands, no one is obliged to declare how much or in what form they contribute to Jamaica's political parties, either for the management of the organisations or for their participation in elections. This murkiness makes our democracy fraught with danger, open to potential hijack by special interests, and, generally, people with fat pocketbooks - however they may have been filled.

That is why, notwithstanding our view that the proposed spending limits are overly generous, this newspaper welcomed the law that will cap what each candidate can spend on a national election campaign to J$15 million and the central organisation to J$630 million. That means that each of the two major parties in the February 25 general election can spend up to J$1.575 billion, or a combined J$3.15 billion. As has been the case in the past, the electorate is unlikely to know where the bulk of that money came from.

For the 2011 election, it is estimated that the parties spent well over $2 billion, for which the public knows the source of J$69.5 million because five firms - GraceKennedy, Scotiabank, Jamaica Money Market Brokers, Sagicor, ICD Group - decided to declare their donations.

The new law will require the parties to keep records of the source of their contributions but report to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica only those of J$250 million or above. Only when a contribution hits J$1 million will it be a matter of public record.

 

GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY

That law, however, is not yet in operation, and its terms, largely, won't be applicable until the next election cycle. Mr Mahfood's urging that his members be transparent about contributions to parties is, therefore, important.

We appreciate that many of them will be uneasy with being open about their political contributions, fearing being victimised or targeted for perceived support for one side or the other. While such fears may not be totally unfounded, they, given the growing maturity of Jamaica's democracy, are perhaps overstated. Indeed, this kind of transparency, when there is no sense of backroom deals being cut, erodes suspicion and enhances trust. Ultimately, it is good for democracy.

Even without the letter of the campaign finance law being in force, we previously urged the parties to abide by its letter. We suggest the same of the private sector - that they limit their contributions to the caps established in the law.

At the same time, the PSOJ and other civil society organisations should see the enacted legislation as a beginning rather than an ultimate goal, which is greater transparency. Campaigning for this should begin as soon as the new Parliament and government are in place.