Sat | Dec 10, 2016

Balancing money power with public power

Published:Sunday | October 12, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A JLP supporter clangs pot covers while passing fist-flying PNP rivals as the Cassia Park division by-election was under way in 2013.-Ian Allen/Staff Photographer
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Provisions for registration, public funding and campaign financing of parties

Trevor Munroe, GUEST COLUMNIST

"What! My taxes to fund political parties? No way!" An understandable gut reaction, but on further consideration, seriously flawed.

Understandable, why?

Parties and politicians are regarded as corrupt in Jamaica, and, in most countries of the world, surveys confirm this perception. Elsewhere, when public officials are found guilty and locked up for corruption (as happened to five MPs in Britain in 2011), this perception gains substance.

The average person believes that parties can, and should, raise their own money to run their own affairs.

Already, taxes are not enough to fix the roads, provide adequate water supplies, clean up the garbage, etc. None should go to fund parties, the argument goes.

However, genuine transformational leadership and sound public policy must be based not on gut feeling and knee-jerk populism, but on careful examination of relevant issues.

Cleaning up the parties

A key element is to move parties from being private clubs to public bodies, indirectly exercising public power. Formal registration and public regulation by statute is a must to facilitate transparency, in the same way as publicly listed companies, non-governmental organisations and charities. Moreover, a special duty rests on party members to discuss, establish and enforce integrity tests, particularly for officers and candidates, to reduce infection by the corrupt.

Funding from members?

Since the end of the 1950s in Jamaica and the end of the 1990s in other countries, evidence indicates that membership dues, especially with declining members and rising political costs, do not constitute a major source of funding, either for party operations or electioneering. Currently in the United Kingdom, it is 11 per cent, in France, 13 per cent, and Sweden, three per cent.

Wishing, hoping or telling parties to rely on their membership dues for operations or electioneering is unlikely to change the situation, especially in Jamaica where political volunteering has declined; where 30 per cent of young people in the labour force are unemployed; where the average weekly earnings of employees in large establishments are approximately $11,000; where one in six of the population is below the poverty line; and where hundreds of thousands are outside the labour force.

At the same time, on the other hand, with wealth concentrated at the top in Jamaica, a country which now has the highest income gap in the Western Hemisphere - second only to Suriname - is it a surprise that party operations and electioneering are funded primarily by the wealthy minority and that public policy outcomes disproportionately favour this segment of society? Worse, it is not in the public interest to reduce the incentive for resources for party funding and electioneering to come from drug kingpins and financial criminals in a country whose national-security policy specifies that corruption of elected and public officials is a "high-impact, high-probability, clear and present danger, demanding an active response".

A main reason why taxes are not now enough to provide basic services is not only because of the absence of economic growth, but as well because many of those who can pay, by virtue of tax evasion, are not bearing their fair share of the burden. It does not require rocket science to make the link between big business' funding of parties and billions of dollars forgone in revenue over the years through the discretionary granting of tax waivers by ministers of finance, a discretion now severely capped by IMF-induced legislation.

Influence of donors

Remember, the party gives birth to the Parliament, the Parliament gives birth to the Cabinet, and the Cabinet gives birth - for better or for worse - to policy direction. If self-interested big business or organised crime pays the party piper, who is it that is likely to call the policy tune? Is one man, one vote once every five years enough to counterbalance the power of big money?

Yes, to a significant extent; only if:

The mass of the people get involved in political financing not through personal disposable income, which they do not have, but through public funding - as happens in two-thirds of countries in the world - of party operations and electioneering, to dilute dependence on (and undue influence by) private special interests.

Public funding for both party operations and electioneering is subject to statute and clear rules enforced by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) and other competent authorities.

There are limits on amounts wealthy individuals can give to a candidate or party for electioneering, as set out in the ECJ's report approved by Parliament in November 2013, which is the basis for the Campaign Finance Reform Bill now being drafted and which must urgently be laid.

There is a limit on how much the party and the candidate can spend in elections as set out in the Campaign Finance Reform Report.

There is public disclosure of large donors and big government contractors to election campaigns.

Contributions from unregulated bodies (like Olint and Cash Plus as well as from foreign governments and agencies) are banned from funding party operations or election campaigns.

Today, the average taxpayer faces hard times, but would the times be so hard had public funding and campaign finance regulations been in place to help ensure that public policy meets the interest of the public and not that of the five per cent who have been paying the piper and calling the tune?

The amendments to the Representation of the People Act now being debated in the House, and the Campaign Finance Reform Bill, due in a few weeks' time, have been discussed for more than 10 years - and ultimately agreed to - by representatives of both political parties, by civil-society organisations, by regional bodies and by international experts.

The convention of robust debate of ECJ report/bills - even parliamentary dissent - but ultimate approval by the majority has helped move Jamaica's electoral administration from worst-case to best-practice globally over the last 30-odd years. Let not this convention be jettisoned on the basis of gut feeling and knee-jerk populism. These bills constitute a good beginning, a basis for review and refinement in years to come, as experience unfolds in balancing money power with public power in our politics.

Professor Trevor Munroe is executive director of the National Integrity Action, and visiting professor, SALISES, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and trevormunroe@yahoo.com.