Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Come clean with campaign-finance reform

Published:Saturday | February 6, 2016 | 2:05 PM
William Mahfood, president of the PSOJ.

Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) President William Mahfood must be commended for the exemplary leadership he is giving on the matter of campaign-finance reform, which is decades overdue.

The law, which is still inadequate, will not chip in for this election, but the private sector could honour the spirit of the law by heeding to Mahfood's plea to disclose contributions.

The law does not require public disclosure of contributions below $1 million, but the PSOJ head is calling on contributors to voluntarily disclose all the amounts they give to political parties. He wants full transparency.

The Gleaner, traditionally aligned to Big Business, must also be commended for its

progressive stance on this matter as the paper has been forceful in criticising the inadequacy of this campaign-finance bill and in urging voluntary public disclosure. In an editorial on Thursday, The Gleaner said, "The private sector has an opportunity, if it grasps it, to begin to sketch broader contours for Jamaica's political financing legislation even before the coming into force of a limited version of the law that was recently approved in Parliament."

The Gleaner, in an editorial on November 2 last year, makes reference to "our and other people's wariness of the impact of tainted and special-interest money on Jamaica's electoral process and their maintenance of the Gangs of Gordon House. If unchecked, it will soon become unabashedly and vulgarly so that Jamaica's democracy is one of those that is on the shelf for those with the deepest pockets and with scant regard for the source of their money". Before the general election in 2007, convicted criminal David Smith contributed US$5 million to the Jamaica Labour Party and US$2 million to the People's National Party. Cash Plus also made

contributions.

Professor Trevor Munroe, head of the National Integrity Action, asked poignantly in a speech he gave in October last year: "Why should it be that the British people, indeed us as Jamaicans, can go on to the UK Elections Commission website right now and know the identity of every single donor who contributed £7,500 or more to Cameron's Conservative Party, or to any other party for that matter, and yet we remain in the dark as to who is contributing big money to the J$1 billion our two major parties said they spent in the 2011 election?"

Professor Munroe, who, as an independent senator, first introduced a resolution in 2002 for campaign-finance reform, went on to ask: "Are our parliamentarians saying to us that we are not good enough to know who is paying the piper in Jamaica, but the British, the Americans and 80 per cent of democracies don't have a problem in us knowing who is funding their parties?"

A big issue in this election is funding. Big Money has always used its influence to get its way. Big Money throws its resources into the party it feels can best protect its interests, and that party and its candidates are able to buy people's support, give them scarce benefits and spoils, and further patronage politics.

That money is also able to give an unfair advantage in the propaganda war. There is an excellent, well-argued, and thorough book just published and to be launched in a few days, titled Money and Politics: Towards a Legal Framework, written by former senator and lawyer Dr Leon Hosang. All 352 pages are worth devouring. This book gives an exhaustive review of Jamaica's struggle to have campaign-finance reform and to amend the Representation of the People Act (ROPA). It also provides an excellent comparative review of legislation in other jurisdictions.

NOT DIFFERENT

Money and Politics quotes an Electoral Commission of Jamaica report that states that "politics in many ways is no different from business. Political parties are about marketing ideas in the same way business markets foods and services.

"In that fierce marketplace, sometimes a party has to do a great deal of spending on the marketing campaign to get people to buy into its vision. Having good ideas is not good enough".

Therefore, the matter of funding is critically important. If parties are underfunded, they are at a disadvantage in presenting their ideas; and if overfunded, the public interest can be at the mercy of financiers as he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Big financiers in 2002 decided that it was time for Bruce Golding to be brought back from the cold desert of the National Democratic Movement. One hundred million dollars was promised to Edward Seaga to bring back Golding to the JLP. (The money never materialised, incidentally, even after Golding was brought back.)

When those big financiers felt Papa Eddie had extended his political shelf life, having "delivered" them from Michael Manley and "communism" in the 1980s, they dumped him and embraced Golding. And Golding did have adequate funding to conduct a slick campaign and to eke past the PNP in 2007.

When Golding was seen as a liability and unmarketable after the Dudus affair, he resigned, to the delight of Big Money. Big Money really wanted Shaw, but got young Andrew, who refused entreaties to step aside. Andrew has never been Big Money's choice, and he is not today. Andrew is an outsider.

People should be free to support whomever they like - it is their money - but we have a right to know where they make their contributions so that we can monitor subsequent action of beneficiary parties.

It is often said that business people are reluctant to disclose how much they give for fear of victimisation. The fact is that while exact amounts might not be known, people in the know have a grasp of the real figures.

ELITE CONTROL OUTCOMES

The fact of the matter is, if you are big enough, whichever party is in power, you are okay. The big fellows get their breaks whichever party wins. That's how our system works. Even with the best and most rigorous campaign-finance laws, the elite control outcomes and their power outweighs that of the rest of us. Don't let duppy fool you! If I call the names of some of the biggest business people now, the politicians, key political activists, and fellow members of the moneyed class will know where most of their money is going in this election. And, incidentally, they give to both parties and do hedge their bets. Nobody is fooled and nobody is really in the dark.

The disclosure laws are really for ordinary folk. Disclosure provides us with a public means of assessing subsequent action and contracts the winning party gives. Private-sector contributors must heed what their leader, William Mahfood, is urging them to do: Voluntarily disclose what you are giving, and to whom. You can be too big to be victimised! Victimisation is for those lower down on the private-sector food chain.

If you are a big hotelier, media owner, or financial-sector player or distributor, no party can victimise you. Both parties need you and what you will have to offer. They will easily forgive your electoral transgressions of giving far more to the other party. Plus, as I have said, the politicians usually know where your support is anyway. Come clean!

It is good PR and will make us feel you are transparent, accountable, and ethical. It's good for branding. Take the moral high ground. You have nothing to lose.

Way back on April 8, 2011, before the last election, The Gleaner, to its credit, in an editorial titled 'How the Gangs of Gordon House Might Rescue Themselves', said: "Seven decades after they (the gangs) combined corruption of the political process and our democracy, another general election should not take place without a law that brings transparency to party financing." Well, the election that year did take place without that law being in effect. And this one will, too, sadly.

But the private sector can step up to the plate. It is your turn to lead, gentlemen (yes, it's largely men!). You are always lecturing the politicians about leading from the front; now it's your time to demonstrate it. Go beyond the letter of the law: Disclose!

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.