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Campaign-finance scam

Published:Sunday | September 28, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Olive Nelson, GUEST COLUMNIST

Olive Nelson, GUEST COLUMNIST

The cost of democracy in Jamaica is already unnecessarily high. With general elections constitutionally due every five years and parish council polls every three, taxpayers are already footing the bill for expensive elections of one type or another every two years on average. To ask them to carry more of the associated cost without any concomitant review of the existing arrangements is unconscionable, to say the least, and certainly not consistent with the prime minister's promise to "balance people's lives".

We recently heard from Orrette Fisher, the director of elections, that "based on historical patterns, it would cost upwards of $50m" to hold mayoral elections in Portmore at this time (Sunday Gleaner, July 27, 2014). Government senators, in arguing for a delay in those elections, agreed that "it was expensive to hold a mayoral election at this time" (Gleaner, July 26, 2014). Yet they have no difficulty ganging up to rush into parish council (PC) elections in 63 constituencies next year March and they want us to finance their advertising campaign. They will be asking us to pay for their annual conferences next.

Your Gleaner headline of Wednesday, September 10, 2014 would have more accurately read 'Pressure on taxpayers to fall for campaign financing scam'.

I am as alarmed at the academic pedigree of some of the persons coming out in unconditional support of the bill to amend the Representation of the People Act (RPA) as I am at the temerity of the Government to be revealing at this time its intention to inflict more pain on the already overburdened taxpayers of this country by seeking to top up its election war chest from the Consolidated Fund.

Not only does the bill provide for political party campaign financing of immense proportions, but also that parties can continue to accept other money and benefits in much the same way they now do - any amount from anybody. Not only are we a country of scammers, but our gullibility knows no bounds - the perfect playground for the David Smiths and Carlos Hills of this world.

Every self-respecting community don will tell you that the anti-corruption safeguards provided in the amendments are merely smokescreens which will have no bearing on the conduct of his party-financing activities. The honest politician will agree, for he knows that when he receives $5m in cash from the $16m stashed away by his loyal, though unemployed community strongman, he will leave no trail for even the most skilful of auditors. He will immediately proceed to distribute some or all of the cash among constituency faithfuls, new and prospective tribalists, curry goat providers, rum bar entrepreneurs, sound system operators, JUTC franchise holders, and perhaps some other connected person or two.

But it could get worse. Should he receive a JUTC-issued receipt, he could conceivably submit it to his party head office and successfully claim reimbursement for personal funds advanced for party business.

There is really nothing to prevent similar treatment of all cash donations, whatever the source. Neither the proposal for disclosure of sources and amounts of contributions, nor ceiling thereon, nor the requirement for audited accounts is likely to reduce, in any significant way, the grievously high level of corruption in this society.

More far-reaching measures that can work are not likely to be taken seriously for the beneficiaries of the prevailing system are too widely spread, too powerful, and the political will too weak. So, as painful as it is to watch the parading of suspected undue influence, we will have to "run wid it" until we decide to send to prison all the violators of the Parliament Integrity of Members Act.

The last PC elections were delayed 14 months beyond their constitutional due date at the whim of the governing party. It can be done again for more transparently justifiable reasons. In fact, there are many who are of the view that they could be delayed forever without anyone really noticing.

The Government should put aside the current Representation of the People Act amendment bill until it has had time to examine the possibility of holding joint general and parish council elections from now on. The PC elections, which are indeed constitutionally due in March 2015, could be easily deferred for another year or two to coincide with the general elections due by December 2016. The time between now and then could be used to enact the enabling legislation and construct the requisite operational platform. It can be done.

This change would stem productivity losses equivalent to three hours per employee next year, but most important would lead to multibillion-dollar cost savings which could, over time, be used to relieve the plight of some of those who rise to face raw sewage each morning, who are being asked to wait three years for surgical interventions, whose schools must close for lack of water.

So underserved and so overtaxed, the Jamaican people should prepare to make another statement in Half-Way Tree should the Government continue along its ill-advised party campaign-financing path. We just can no longer afford costs that come without benefits.

Olive Nelson is a chartered accountant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and olivescottn@gmail.com.