Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Richard A. Harriott | Time for campaign-finance controls

Published:Monday | October 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica's two main political parties are getting ready for a series of by-elections.

It is therefore a good time to remind the nation of the importance of campaign-finance reform in Jamaica. This country simply cannot tolerate the use of money to influence who sits in Gordon House or at municipalities at the parish level.

The Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) has done outstanding work in the area of campaign finance. The commission has made fundamental recommendations which, when implemented, will go a far way to attack and resolve spending issues during election campaigns. Jamaica must press for their implementation as we defend the integrity of our electoral process and our democracy.

The commission's campaign-finance work extends back to 2002 when it agreed on several areas of reform, including the registration and financing of political parties. In 2007, the ECJ decided to separate political party registration and financing from that of campaign finance. By 2014, the law dealing with political parties took effect. The focus was then switched to campaign finance.

The campaign-finance document submitted by the ECJ to Parliament is the result of widespread consultations across Jamaica with various stakeholders, including members of the public through town hall meetings, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, The Jamaica Bar Association, the Press Association of Jamaica, the Broadcasting Commission, National Integrity Action, the Jamaica Coalition of Civil Society, the Jamaica Bankers Association, and the Financial Services Commission. There were also vigorous debates in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The final document is, therefore, an all-encompassing representation of as wide a cross section as possible. It is not perfect, but it is an excellent start and represents a significant milestone for the peoples of Jamaica.

It covers sources of contributions and donations; limits on contributions to candidates and political parties; limits on election expenditure; disclosure by candidates and political parties; state funding of election campaigns; and the establishment of a national campaign fund, among other integrity-building proposals.

Frankly, Jamaica really cannot sustain the billions of dollars pumped into election campaigns. Also, campaign financing is perceived as a stimulus for corruption because of the considerable amount of money political parties need to run for office. The high cost of campaigns means that politicians must increasingly rely on wealthy businesses, special interests, and rich individuals to fund their crusades, and this dependency syndrome has made manifest the vulnerability to corruption of incumbents, as well as contenders for public office.

 

CONTRIBUTORS MAY BENEFIT

 

Consequently, in addition to unduly influencing public policies and actions, financial contributors may variously benefit from government activities such as public procurement contracts, arguably the activity most vulnerable to corruption.

And even in the absence of such covert exchanges, there is often public perception that respective governments are overly cautious when formulating policies, lest they offend their donors. Donations can thus serve as inducements for an incumbent government to generate economic and political advantages for contributors.

The ECJ's recommendations can help to limit or eliminate many of these concerns, so Jamaicans should become interested and support campaign-finance reform for the good of the country. Maintaining the status quo can only create more incentives for parties and candidates to bend their will to those who can contribute the most. Jamaica must neither condone nor tolerate this. We must demand the implementation and policing of the ECJ recommendations.

In addition, as a country, we must defend the tremendous work the ECJ has done since the late 1970s, when it was the Electoral Advisory Committee, to transform the nation's electoral system. As a country, we have made significant strides in voter registration; in the identification of voters on election day to ensure one person, one vote; in the application of technology to the electoral process; and in the conduct of elections, generally.

Jamaica's strides, anchored by the hard-working members of the ECJ over the decades, have been recognised by Jamaicans in the growing confidence that elections are free and fair; by the Commonwealth by being featured as an example of good governance in the conduct of elections; by the Organization of American States as a hemispheric leader in the application of technology to the electoral process; and by international organisations, such as the Carter Center and the United Nations.

In light of the locally and internationally recognised achievements in cleaning up the electoral system, we must guard this jealously. We cannot return to where we are coming from. We must, instead, continue with the reform agenda. We must move to the next level, which is campaign-finance reform.

We must insist on the regulations to support the legislation. We must call on our political leaders and political parties to act.

It would be a good signal if they begin to voluntarily implement the campaign-finance recommendations as they get ready for the upcoming by-elections. The time for action is now.

- Richard A. Harriott is an educator in public policy and public administration. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.