Fri | Sep 18, 2020

Editorial | After the East Portland report

Published:Wednesday | March 4, 2020 | 12:00 AM

For anyone who has given serious thought to the matter, last week’s publication by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) of summary finance contribution report for the East Portland by-election underlined the need for adjustment to the laws.

While ECJ tells us that the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) received more than $100 million during the campaign period, the information isn’t fully illuminating. For the report purports no more than what it is declared to be: the value of the contributions received by the parties, and their candidates between the day that the election was announced and the one on which the votes, were taken. It doesn’t tell you how much they and/or their respective candidates, spent on the campaign, which is information that, by law, is, or ought to be, in the possession of the commission.

The amendments, since 2016, to Jamaica’s campaign finance legislation, were aimed primarily at keeping dark money out of elections, and ensuring special interests with deep pockets, even if legitimate, couldn’t readily customise the best democracy their money can buy. So, the law sets a $15-million limit that candidates in Jamaica’s 63 parliamentary constituencies can spend on their campaigns.

Further, during an election campaign, political parties are allowed to spend up to $630 million, or $10 million per constituency, including any direct funding it may provide to individual candidates. Candidates and the parties, at the end of a campaign, have to report on the amount of contribution they collected, including those of $1 million or more.

Potential grey areas

But the East Portland by-election hints at potential grey areas in the law, suggesting the need for increased transparency in reporting, and clarity in the legislation.

Section 60 of the Representation of The People Act requires that within six weeks of an election, a candidate or his agent file a return that includes all money received “in connection with the election” and of all related expenditures. The electoral authorities have 10 days after the submissions to publish summaries of them. In keeping with this stipulation, the PNP’s Damion Crawford reported receiving $2.7 million and spending $4.75 million, 32 per cent of his allowable amount, and far below what was suggested by the optics of the campaign.

Using the number of contributions in the one-million-dollars-and-above bands, last week’s report by the ECJ now suggests that Mr Crawford would have received a minimum of $4.6 million, and up to $6 million in contributions. The JLP’s Ann-Marie Vaz, who won the contest, reported no personal campaign expenditure, or fundraising for her sumptuous campaign. The whole matter was ostensibly handled by the central party, which reported receiving $53.1 million in contributions, 11 per cent more than what was reported by the PNP.

Many people, based on anecdotal evidence, will insist that what happened in East Portland was more than a $100-million affair. The public, at least for that election, won’t know for certain.

Like with its candidates, parties have to report on their campaign-related fundraising and expenditures during the prescribed period. They have six months to file these reports, which this newspaper believes, even in the case of a general election, is far too long. Based on Section 52BR of the amended law, the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) has only to tell the public how much the parties say they collected, including amounts at the one-million-dollars-or-above threshold. That must change.

It remains unclear to us, too, if the law can be interpreted, in a case such as East Portland, that a party could, if it wished, throw as much resources in a single by-election as would be allowable in a national poll, when 63 constituencies are in play. Section 52BH of the amended law says: “Where a registered political party contests one or more constituencies in an election, the registered political party shall not incur expenditure on election expenses during the reporting period in excess of $630 million”, of whatever a cap is in place at the particular period. This section requires a definitive statement, for the avoidance of doubt, that in the case of by-elections, the $10-million cap per constituency applies.

The law, in the wake of the East Portland by-election, must mandate, too, that in the face of specific and credible complaints about the level of campaign expenditure, the EAC must conduct a forensic analysis of the expenditure, with the threat of suspending parties found to be in breach of the rules.