Editorial: Money and politics
Jamaica has been given a relatively short campaign period, if one discounts the early election signals late last year, and this could mean less expenditure by the political parties in this so-called era of austerity.
In recent days, the battle for Jamaica House has ignited an intense conversation about the financing of the Beverly Hills' home of Opposition Leader Andrew Holness. Many argue that the question goes to the heart of transparency and is an ultimate check on the integrity of Mr Holness and others who offer themselves for public service. Over the years, Jamaica has been swamped by various political scandals, and a sceptical public appears eager for any measure that serves to boost transparency.
Demanding answers on integrity issues and satisfying the fit-and-proper eligibility criterion must be seen as a step forward in Jamaica's evolution as a democracy. It should not just happen during election season but throughout the year and be demanded of all politicians. The Integrity commission established in 1975 is supposed to monitor the assets and liabilities of members of parliament. By asking the questions, the PNP is seemingly signalling the inability of the commission to deal with the integrity of parliamentarians. These are questions for the commissioners to answer.
In the absence of a national debate, there are lingering questions about issues that concern the voting public. Ranking high among the troubling issues is the matter of campaign financing and queries about the key economic players who have been stirring the respective campaign pots.
One of the traditional ways in which parties are funded is through donations. For the February election, the major parties appear flush with cash, and the public has no way of assessing the sources of these funds. It is unlikely that these questions will be answered either before or after the February 25 polls.
However, the electorate needs to be satisfied that political parties will be contesting these elections on a fair and transparent basis and that there exists a level playing field for all. In a country where voter apathy is running unacceptably high, it is of paramount importance that the voting public is satisfied that conflict of interest, undue influence and corruption are absent from the process, in which case more persons may be convinced to participate on election day.
From as far back as 2011, the major political parties agreed with Electoral Commission of Jamaica rules not to accept donations, whether directly or indirectly, from foreign governments or their agents or agencies. Meantime, a bill seeking to effect changes to the Representation of the People Act to facilitate campaign-financing reform has meandered through Parliament and should take effect for the next election. The new legislation will introduce a raft of measures such as placing limits on the amount of donations that may be accepted by candidates and parties.
Candidates are required to file full reports to their returning officers of their expenditure made during the conduct of their campaigns. This includes donations of money and in-kind gifts. A candidate making a false declaration could be guilty of an offence and, on summary conviction in a Resident Magistrate's Court, be liable to a fine of $1 million or a 12-month term of imprisonment.
How much attention is paid to these filings is yet to be determined, for so far there have not been any penalties levied on any candidate for concealing funds or for failing to submit accurate and timely accounts.
No single policy instrument will be sufficient to halt the attempt to corrupt the political process, but rigid regulatory measures, mixed with the strong will of the people, can combine to achieve the desired effects.