Wed | Sep 20, 2017

A waste of parliamentary time

Published:Friday | February 5, 2016 | 2:00 AM
Lambert Brown voted for a bill he denounced as a waste of time.

The Jamaican Parliament and Senate have each passed the campaign-finance bill in the first go-round. I don't often agree with party hacks, but I share entirely the sentiments of government senator Lambert Brown that the bill being considered was a "feel-good piece of legislation" and a "waste of parliamentary time", as quoted by The Gleaner on January 23, 2016.

Party hacks don't often disagree with the party line, and radically disagree with bills put forward by their party, and that is why we should pay attention to Senator Brown's comments.

His comment referred specifically to the provision in the bill for a National Election Campaign Fund to be established, allowing individuals, companies, and other entities, as well as the Jamaican diaspora to participate in the electoral process. The bill proposes that the money in the fund be disbursed to candidates within 180 days after an election is held for the purpose of reimbursing expenses incurred by the qualified candidates of all parties in their election campaigns.

 

ANONYMOUS DONATIONS

 

What this means is that those who donate money to the fund do not determine which politician of which party will benefit from their donation, and no political candidate will know specifically who provided the funds with which they are reimbursed. Therefore, no favour will be owed, and no payback can be demanded. In his intervention, Senator Brown said that the idea of the fund is impractical in many respects, and I agree with him. In our corrupt political culture, this anonymous donation business simply will not work! This campaign-finance bill is a "waste of parliamentary time" and a waste of the nation's time.

In fact, the whole of the campaign-finance bill is a waste of time! Politicians can - and I suppose, do - receive political donations every day of the year, but the only ones they have to declare to the secret committee are those received in the campaign period, defined as the time between when the election date is announced and election day. For this election, the campaign period is between January 31 and February 25 - only 25 days. Donations received on any of the other 340 days of the year do not have to be declared.

Last Sunday, a massive crowd estimated in the high tens of thousands was assembled at Half-Way Tree. These were not people who bought their orange shirts and caps and showed up at the rally under their own steam. This was a rent-a-crowd - people who were clothed, fed, liquored-up and transported to Half-Way Tree by the PNP for the purpose of delivering a visual impact.

Creating that spectacle was not cheap. For other functions, it is reported that along with the shirt and cap, each supporter received J$5,000 to attend. You do the maths. That rally must have cost them well over J$500 million - up front; and that's just one event!

That means that before the election date has been announced, hundreds - maybe thousands - of millions of dollars in donations have been given and received, and none of that will need to be declared under this waste-of-time campaign-finance bill. This bill is an incentive for donors to give early and give often so that they can avoid appearing on the radar of the secret committee to which the political parties will report who gave them how much.

And I am not even sure that in-kind contributions have to be reported.

Creative candidates will report very little income during the campaign period, but massive spending: just defer paying your debts incurred over the last six months until after the election is called and you will be due massive refunds!

 

FRAUDULENT CONVERSION

 

Usually when someone gives you money for one purpose, and you convert it to your own use, that is considered fraudulent conversion. Lawyers get locked up and disbarred for that! Suppose a politician receives a political donation of a million dollars for his campaign, and he deposits $600,000 into his personal account; that would be fraudulent conversion.

When someone raised in the House whether this scenario would be a breach under the act, he was assured that it would be. When the minister of justice was asked what the penalty would be for that offence, he replied that it was not the intention of the Government to make that breach a criminal offence!

So, breaching procurement guidelines is not a criminal offence, and nepotism is not a criminal offence, and announcing a public holiday contrary to law is not a criminal offence, and now, fraudulent conversion of political donations will not be a criminal offence.

Politicians who foresee breaking the law will never make lawbreaking a criminal offence.

Good going, Lambert! I just wish you had voted against this waste-of-time campaign-finance bill.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.