Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Peter Espeut | Something is not always better than nothing

Published:Friday | August 26, 2016 | 8:00 AM

I can't imagine who would be surprised at the contents of the treasurer's report of the People's National Party (PNP) leaked earlier this week to the media. Apparently, the PNP has no centralised financial structure, with central oversight of political contributions and political spending.

Every PNP activist is a fundraiser for the party, with authority to approach the private sector for donations, and to hold any funds received either in a bank account under a name of their choosing, or close to his or her chest. I am sure the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) is no different.

After all, funds are needed at all levels of party operations: at party headquarters, at the six regional offices, and in each of the 63 constituencies and 228 parish council divisions. Councillor candidates who sit down and wait for party central to send him or her adequate funds to mount an election campaign will find themselves underfunded and defeated.

Every business place across Jamaica can expect to be approached multiple times by party fundraisers asking for donations either in cash or kind. The latter will include restaurants, petrol stations, and purveyors of cloth. I can't imagine that many of the party activists who receive these political gifts keep proper accounts of all the donations they receive, or report even the cash received to party headquarters.

The PNP treasurer, in his report, lamented that when fundraisers from party central would approach a political donor, they would be told that such-and-such a party official had already collected their donation. Which would not be a bad thing if the contribution was turned over to the party treasurer. The problem is that, most times, the donation collector keeps the money and "spends it on their own campaign".

 

OPENING FOR CORRUPTION

 

It will be obvious to the reader the opening for corruption that this 'system' perhaps intentionally provides, if we can dignify it by calling it a 'system'. What is there to prevent these hundreds of political fundraisers from converting all or part of the donations they receive to their own personal use? Apparently nothing!

We Jamaicans should be honest enough to admit that the so-called campaign-finance reform legislation passed earlier this year by Parliament on the first-go round cannot bring political fundraising under public scrutiny and oversight. And the politicians know it! Why do you think both parties agreed on this watered-down act so easily? I always say that when the PNP and the JLP agree on anything, watch out!

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 of the Electoral Commission are those received within the campaign period, defined as the time between when the election date is announced and election day itself. For the election just gone, the campaign period was between January 31 and February 25 - only 25 days. Donations received on any of the other 340 days of the year would not have to be declared.

But which donations? It seems to me that the so-called campaign-finance reform legislation requires only party central to make declarations to the secret committee of the Electoral Commission of donations made within the campaign period. If party central sends money to any of the six regional offices, or any of the 63 constituency offices, or the 228 parish council divisions, I would expect it to be declared to the secret committee of the Electoral Commission; but I don't see any requirement for the 63 constituency offices or the 228 parish council divisions to declare any funds they receive on their own behalf, which they keep in their own private accounts.

 

SLUSH FUNDS

 

How many 'Friends of Candidate X' or 'X Y our Candidate' or 'Z Constituency Trust' bank accounts exist out there? And then there are the slush funds maintained in cash. The so-called campaign-finance reform legislation will not capture any of these in the net of transparency.

I don't often agree with party hacks, but I share entirely the sentiments of government senator Lambert Brown as quoted by The Gleaner on January 23, 2016, that the bill then being considered was a "feel-good piece of legislation" and a "waste of parliamentary time".

Old-time people seh that "something is better than nothing"; this is not always true. The so-called campaign-finance reform legislation will only provide an opportunity for politicians of both sides to falsely claim transparency. National Integrity Action, led by Professor Trevor Munroe, does itself a disservice by supporting this waste-of-time legislation in an effort to give it the credibility which it doesn't deserve.

At the end of the day, we will be left with nothing!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.