Sat | Jul 21, 2018

Editorial | Political parties should embrace regulation

Published:Sunday | December 31, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The quality of the pudding, as they say, is ultimately determined in the eating. So, it is a while yet before judgement can be passed on the efficacy of the political party registration and campaign financing regulations that will come into force on January 2, after more than a decade and a half of meandering discussion and debate and, sometimes, deliberate efforts at delay by politicians.

This newspaper, however, is optimistic that the implementation of the regime will prove an important step in improving the quality and integrity of the political process. At the very least, it is that much harder to put Jamaica's democracy on the block to the people with the deepest pockets, no matter their character or the source of their cash.

Under the regulations related to amendments to the Representation of the People Act passed in 2014 and 2016, political parties will have to register with the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), to which they will have to produce annual audited accounts. But more critical are the regulations relating to how the parties can finance their election campaigns.

For instance, a political party is limited to an expenditure of $630 million, while each candidate can separately spend as much as $15 million, including any amounts received from the party. Conceivably, a political party and its candidates, combined, assuming that they contested the 63 constituencies, could spend as much a $1.58 billion on an election, or J$3.15 billion between the two parties.

 

FORMAL LIMITS

 

That, as we have argued before, is not only a lot of money, but too much to be expended on elections, which opens the door to the institutions or government being acquired and influenced by special interests. This is an issue that this newspaper believes should be reviewed.

The upside, though, is that for the first time there will be formal limits on who can give and how much can be given to political parties, as well as some transparency and accountability to the process. For instance, the parties will have to report on their fund-raising to the ECJ, which, after an election, will report on the money raised and how it was spent on campaigns. Further, parties will have to report on contributions of $250,000 or more, and those of $1 million or more will be made public. The law also prevents contributions from foreign governments; organisations or individuals whose activities are illegal; public bodies; as well as from anonymous sources.

No one, of course, needs reminding of Jamaica's penchant for addressing concerns with new laws or regulations that are never, or inadequately, enforced, thereby providing sops to consciences, but leaving problems unsolved. In this regard, much will depend on the ECJ, which, given the years it has had to prepare, should have developed systems in place for a robust policing of the rules. The commission should be prepared to speak publicly, and often, if the rules are breached, as well as to make proposals for their refinement, including in those areas over which we raised concerns.

Political parties might find the rules constraining, but, should they think on it, they have a powerful incentive to ensure that they work - regaining public trust. Multiple surveys show political parties and politicians not only to be the least trusted institutions in Jamaica, but that confidence in them continues to decline. That raises questions about their long-term relevance, the institutions of governance with which they might be replaced, and what all this says about the maintenance of democracy. In the circumstances, their reason for existence is not assured.