Campaign financing from public purse fundamentally flawed
Olive Nelson, Contributor
In The Sunday Gleaner of June 24, in an article titled 'Money woes unsettle JLP', a source is reported to have explained in relation to political party financing that both major political parties operate accounts "outside of the party accounts, so that private-sector entities could make donations without drawing cheques directly to the party".
In the same article, the long-serving treasurer of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Chris Bovell, admitted that "some members hold dual functions within the party and, therefore, raise funds in different capacities without the need for candidates to report fund-raising activities to the Treasury/finance committee".
A week earlier, in The Gleaner of June 15, Robert Pickersgill, equally long-serving chairman of the People's National Party (PNP), confirmed that in 2007, US$1m had indeed been received from Olint in an account (clearly not that of the PNP) to finance the party's election campaign.
no expression of alarm
Between himself and Bovell, they still could not, after several weeks of investigations, account for any of the combined contribution of an additional US$7m (J$600m) said by the Turks & Caicos authorities to have been donated to the parties. In all of this, there was no expression of alarm, no shame, no suggestion of any awareness of the consequences which would flow to persons holding similar positions in any self-respecting organisation.
In short, the state of political party financing in Jamaica is one of financial anarchy, devoid of any semblance of self-regulatory control or any regard for accountability. Worse, there is not even the slightest evidence that in the hierarchy of any of the parties, there was any discontent with the status quo. Everybody is happily singing the same Sankey from the same hymn book.
Bovell's call for change rings hollow. A lawyer of some eminence, he is urging the fast implementation of public party financing as the solution to the now sharply focused transparency deficit problem. However, to the enabling legislation he is ascribing no greater weight, no greater importance than that it will "set guidelines".
The need for urgent change is, indeed, impatient of debate, but in this type of culture, what hope is there for it? How will legislation for the financing of political parties help to fix anything if there is no appetite for change among the legislators? Are the beneficiaries of the existing system likely to sign off on far-reaching, game-changing legislation which will deprive them of the largesse currently enjoyed?
The call for public party financing has understandably intensified since the Olint revelations, for everywhere it is being promoted as the ultimate panacea.
However, we should be careful how we import foreign-designed strategies into our jurisdiction. They will not necessarily work here. The impunity with which inconvenient laws are circumvented here is certain to make a mockery of it all.
The Contractor General Act was not a problem until somebody tried to implement it with an unexpected degree of diligence; and by paying a measly fine of $10,000, a parliamentarian can avoid the annual statutory filing of an annoying integrity return.
Party financing legislation, when passed, will be just more of the same. Successive governments will begin raiding an impoverished public purse to throw good money after bad, the latter continuing to find its way into places other than the designated party accounts. The cost to taxpayers will be substantial, without any of the associated benefits.
But there is an infinitely more compelling reason for us not to be looking in that direction. The concept of financing political parties from public funds is fundamentally flawed. In no other organisation is the customer expected to pay for the advertising campaign of which he is the target. The electorate should be no more prepared to pay for a party's election campaign than for the periodic advertising blitz of either of our telecommunications companies.
If there must be legislation, let it address the fiduciary responsibilities of the accounting officers of political parties. Given the will of both donor and party, the management of the existing funding arrangements can be significantly improved without a cent from the Treasury and the already overburdened taxpayer.
In this 50th year of our Independence, let us renounce all deceptive overtures and seek to pursue true justice for all before it is recklessly foisted upon us.
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