EDITORIAL - Making parties transparent
Last week, Phillip Paulwell, the leader of government business in the House, who has responsibility for electoral matters, tabled a bill to amend the Representation of the People Act to, among other things, cause the registration of political parties.
That is a big deal. At least to this newspaper. For, after a tortuous process of jawboning - some might say passive resistance by politicians - we, at last, may be on the cusp of real transparency and accountability from our parties in the conduct of their affairs.
There is a large, overarching context to our position. Simply stated, this newspaper takes democracy seriously. We adhere to the position that its emphasis on individual freedoms, the space it provides for individuals to unleash the creative energies, and, critically, the right of people to elect their leaders make it the best form of government generally - and for Jamaica.
Unfortunately, that fundamental right can be, and often is, hijacked, leaving that presumed right of choice as mere mirage. That happens, sometimes, when an inattentive citizenry cede their right of choice to leaders bundled in political parties, or, more invidiously, when our democracy drifts to being the best one money can buy. In other words, political parties and their leaders become beholden to those who finance their route to power.
The upshot, either way, is likely to be corruption, the diminution of which the proposed law, if passed, and robustly enforced, has the potential to contribute.
Up to now, Jamaica's political parties, essentially, are private, largely unaccountable entities - not even their members. They are under no specific obligation to follow their own internal rules and may or may not publish their accounts, but without need to offer verification of the numbers. And we really don't know who fund them, such as how the PNP and the JLP financed the more than J$3 billion they are estimated to have spent on the 2011 election campaign.
Abuse of power
That can't be a private affair. For parties exist to gain state power, which, when attained, gives them authority to shape the environment in which people live and control over national resources. That power can be abused, and often, not least through siphoning of taxpayers' resources to shadowy political backers.
It is against this backdrop that this newspaper has long supported the proposed requirement for the registration of political parties, with its rider that they adhere to internal democracy and annually publish audited accounts. The perhaps more important provisions are those that will require political parties to report donations about benchmark amounts, the limits that will be placed on campaign spending, and their partial funding by the State.
The little idea will, for some, be difficult to embrace, especially given Jamaica's economic circumstance. But it will help to level the playing field, easing the leverage if, and when, big money lines up behind a party in an effort to pursue their narrow interests. We would have liked that the register of donors be open to the public, rather than being available only to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, as the regulations now propose. Hopefully, it is not too long before there is consensus on this.
There is need, it seems, for clarification and debate on how taxpayers' money can, or should, be clawed back from parties that break the rules. Broadly, though, Jamaica is on the right track. The law is good for democracy and the transparency is good for the economy.
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