EDITORIAL - Putting ethics into politics
One item which neither the ruling People's National Party (PNP) nor opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) may have placed on its agenda for upcoming national conferences is campaign financing.
It is a subject that surfaces especially during the heat of a political campaign and soon dissipates after the ballots have been counted and the victors have been sworn into office. Our lawmakers have struggled with campaign-finance legislation for many years, with not much to show for it.
However, fresh concerns about ethical implications for politicians have been raised by the Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control (JCTC) with the disclosure that four politicians, two from either side, received cash donations from tobacco companies in breach of the World Health Organisation's treaty convention for tobacco control, which is seeking to protect public health policy from the interference of tobacco companies.
The JCTC, chaired by Dr Knox Hagley, says the four MPs took cash donations from tobacco companies which they used to support community development projects. Political parties have never been transparent with their fund-raising efforts, and money donated for a campaign could instead be used for the personal enrichment of the candidate and his family. The treasurer's report at these annual partisan powwows is never as thorough and as transparent as it ought to be.
Earlier this year, there were allegations out of the Turks and Caicos justice system that both the JLP and PNP, and indivi-dual candidates, had received significant sums of money from the Olint Ponzi scheme. And even those with marginal interest in campaign financing took notice. However, neither party has, so far, given a satisfactory explanation about these alleged contributions from the now-jailed David Smith.
Nothing has been done to erase from the public's mind the perception that Smith, who fled Jamaica after attempts to shut down his illegal operations, could have been using investors' money to buy influence and protect himself from prosecution.
It takes enormous money to run a political campaign as the bills can pile up in this increasingly media-savvy world. And the winners are usually those with the money edge. It also requires wads of cash to remain in power. He who is able to make a handsome contribution to the victorious candidate stands to wield extraordinary influence at Jamaica House.
Imagine that a company wants a technical change in a law concerning environmental standards. The company had made a handsome donation to the person who is in charge of the portfolio ministry. Does the background of campaign donation hold the potential to affect the objectivity of such a politician? Undoubtedly, the donation introduces the possibility of an obligation, and the politician may feel that reciprocity is appropriate. Only strong public scrutiny can avert political bias in favour of party benefactors.
Countries have taken various approaches to the subject of campaign financing. In the United States, it is treated as a freedom-of-speech issue, but very agile ways have been found around the restrictions concerning campaign donations. But in many cases, disclosure laws are very weak.
However, in the face of stringent criticisms by ethics and transparency groups, and the demand for accountability by more and more corporate bodies, there is an urgent need to place campaign financing on the national agenda and to ensure that disclosure provisions are strengthened. The route to reform should begin now.
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