By Peter Espeut
I listened very carefully to the live broadcast of the public forum on campaign finance reform held at the UWI, Mona, last Wednesday to see whether any of the panellists would offer any criticisms of the revised recommendations submitted to Parliament in August this year by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ). I was disappointed! It was cheerleading, pure and simple!
Both major political parties, the private sector, and National Integrity Action lined up squarely behind the revised ECJ proposals. This would not be bad if the proposals had some hope of achieving the desired objective: transparency and reducing influence-peddling. There will be no transparency for the public as all declarations will be made in secret; and the safeguards against large donors buying influence with politicians are so weak as to be ineffective.
Last week, I wrote that the current ECJ recommendations for campaign finance reform are little more than a sham and a ruse to add taxpayers' money to the campaign kitty. No one has contradicted me.
The first signal in the report of the snow job being perpetrated on us was when it said: "The Electoral Commission decided to link the registration and financing of political parties and separate both from the financing of election campaigns." (page 2)
To be eligible for public funding, all a political party has to do is get registered - a painless procedure. What they should have done is link public financing to public declaration of the sources of campaign contributions: no public campaign money unless you declare where your other money is coming from! But, no! This dolly-house arrangement will allow political parties to plunder the public purse without conceding anything at all! What sort of 'reform' is that?
The ECJ recommendations claim to place "limits on contributions/donations to candidates and political parties", but this is another sham.
Listen to this: "The total amount of contribution/donation given by a donor shall not exceed in a single campaign period an amount equal to 10 per cent of the aggregate limit of the expenditure to which the candidate is entitled, or, in relation to a political party, an amount equal to five per cent of the aggregate limit of the expenditure to which the party is entitled under this act." (page 11).
And so if a party has 63 political candidates contesting an election, someone wishing to buy influence could - quite legally - donate 10 per cent of the aggregate limit of each of the 63 candidates! That would be equivalent to totally funding more than six whole candidates! Fully 10 per cent of the House of Representatives! And on top of that, he is still permitted to donate to headquarters five per cent of the party's allowed limit.
I agree that technically, this is a limit, but it is so high that it really is no limit at all!
OPEN TO CORRUPTION
I can see it all now: 20 persons each donate five per cent to the party, fully subscribing its allowable limit. Someone else comes along with money to donate: "Sorry (Comrade or Labourite), we are not allowed to accept any more money." It will never happen! No penalties are prescribed for accepting more than is allowed or spending more than is allowed.
Here is another provision which leaves the system open to corruption: "Where a contribution/donation of an amount of $250,000 or more is accepted, the political party, or the candidate, shall issue a receipt for the donation to the donor in the form prescribed by the Electoral Commission." (page 12)
Receipts are essential to keep track of money coming in. Why require receipts only for amounts of $250,000 or more? Suppose a candidate gets 10 donations of $200,000? Why should he not be required to issue receipts so that the $2 million can be taken account of? I bet that very few receipts will be issued.
Suppose a donor gives $200,000 this week and $200,000 next week. Each is under $250,000, so no receipt will need to be given. But the aggregate exceeds $250,000. Since no receipts have been issued, no one will notice that the threshold has been exceeded.
Or a donor could give $200,000; his wife, $200,000; their son, $200,000; their daughter, $200,000; and their household helper, $200,000. No receipt will be required to be issued for any one of these donations, and $1 million will creep under the ECJs radar.
The system is so full of loopholes that even if it works as designed, no influence-peddling will ever be detected.
Receipts must be issued for all donations received - of whatever size and from whatever source. Persons making donations must produce identification. And all donations with names must be published on the ECJs website. How else will we detect influence peddling?
Peter Espeut is a sociologist. Email feedback to email@example.com.