Sat | Apr 29, 2017

State party funding is political rape

Published:Monday | September 15, 2014 | 9:00 AM
East St Thomas Member of Parliament Dr Fenton Ferguson gyrates during a PNP campaign stop. Would you want your tax dollars to fund this? Ian Allen/Photographer

How much is democracy worth? That's a question which always tends to follow after raising issues of cost relating to the administration and maintenance of our political affairs.

But that should not be an impediment to any critique or even broadside on policies or proposals which could do violence to the taxpayers' pockets.

Last week's tabling, in the House of Representatives, of a bill to amend the Representation of the People Act gives Jamaica yet another opportunity to consider the spend on our political system.

The bill is proposing, among other things, that every registered political party that meets certain requirements, including having its annual financial statements independently audited by a registered public accountant, be entitled in each financial year to receive state funding. So, political parties, will, essentially, become a yearly charge on the national Budget!

Let us consider the fact that taxpayers have been given significant concessions to political parties to import campaign vehicles - all of 103 per party! - every election. Add to that, the cost for maintaining the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), which sees every member, except D.K. Duncan and Peter Bunting, holding an $8-million job.

The commission comprises four selected members, four nominated members (which include two persons nominated by the prime minister and two nominated by the leader of the Opposition), and the director of elections. In essence, the taxpayers are being forced to pay the bill of political party operatives who sit on the ECJ and who are central to putting together this unconscionable public funding bill.

So in putting the tab together, the taxpayer is being asked to provide the campaign vehicles, oil the campaign machinery all year round, pay to keep political operatives on the ECJ to guide a two-party state policy, pay for the administration of elections, and for payment to MPs.

some costs are necessary

The Gavel concedes that there are some costs which are necessary, chief among them being administration of elections and paying MPs. In fact, MP salaries should be higher, and they should be provided with greater research assistance to do legislative work. The MPs, however, should be made to divorce themselves from parochial activities such as road repairs, back-to-school, drain-cleaning and funeral grants. They should focus on policies.

The bill is being tabled against the background of the ECJ being of the view that given the vital and important role of political parties in the affairs of the country, the fact that there is no requirement for political parties to be registered is untenable. The Gavel shares that view but finds no comfort in what appears to be a quid pro quo, which essentially says the taxpayers must pay political parties to be registered and operate in a transparent manner.

This unjust bill is proposing that a registered political party receive, as state funding, in any financial year, up to 40 per cent of its income for the previous financial year. Thus, if the People's National Party or the Jamaica Labour Party raised $1 billion in the last year, taxpayers could be asked to pay up to $400 million each to help pay the electricity and water bills at Belmont and Old Hope Road.

This is madness, if not rape!

The bill further proposed that state funding shall not be available in any financial year to a registered political party that has been formed in the previous financial year by five or more MPs who contested as independent candidates or candidates of a registered political party at a general election. If this is not an attempt to maintain the two-party system, I do not know what it is.

practicality

Let me be clear: I am opposed to the state funding of political parties. It is not practical in our environment. But, if it is to become a feature of our political landscape, there should be no impediment to the creation of third parties. It is clear, from the proposal, that persons are discouraged from breaking rank. If you fail to toe the party line, you will be punished.

There is also a proposal for the creation of an Office of the Registrar of Political Parties, which is to operate out of the Electoral Office of Jamaica.

The Gavel is unconvinced that public funds should be used to maintain even a staff of one, for any registry, which will merely be dedicated to receiving and processing applications for the registration of political parties and forwarding them to the Electoral Commission for consideration.

Under the proposed law, the registrar will be responsible for the verification of the particulars of political parties submitted either with an application for registration or periodically, and in that regard may request the official records of registered political parties; and keep and maintain an up-to-date register.

A sound proposal in the bill is for every registered political party to submit an annual report on or before April 1 each year. The bill also requires that the parties submit to the ECJ for the preceding financial year of that political party, an annual financial report prepared by a registered public accountant; and a statement showing the sources of the funds of the political party. This should be a normal function of any serious organisation.

The issue of corruption and the risk of tainted money making its way into the political system is not being overlooked. As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The Gavel, however, is unconvinced that this bill will cure the ills. In fact, state funding will become supplementary income for political parties, which will direct their dirty donors to pay bar, petrol and other campaign-related bills without it showing up in the accounts of the political parties. One only has to look at some of the returns that have been submitted over the years by candidates in elections, which will show little or no spending despite massive campaign activities.

With the bill now on the table of the House, it seems almost a fait accompli that it is going to be passed soon and maybe in time for the local government elections next March. The Gavel is looking to Everald Warmington, who is perhaps the only opponent of public funding, to stall, if not derail, this one. It cannot be fair for the political parties to be telling Jamaicans that we must pay them (public financing) to get their houses (party registration) in order.

Email feedback to thegavel@gleanerjm.com.


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