Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Sham campaign-finance reform

Published:Friday | October 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM

There will be few who will disagree that the ways political parties get their funding need to be reformed. Recent events are fresh in our minds: Ponzi schemes made multimillion-dollar donations to both political parties using funds stolen from members of the greedy public; and no case against a Ponzi scheme operator has ever gone to trial in Jamaica. Is there a connection?

And then there is the little matter of J$30 million-plus obliquely donated to the PNP by Trafigura, and the US$65,000 donated to the JLP to pay US lobbyists Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. What did these donors expect to get in return?

The main objective of campaign-finance reform, as stated by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), is "to minimise or regulate influence peddling, as well as obviate the possibility of the State and its policies being hijacked and dictated by narrow interest groups". The main strategy against influence peddling is transparency: all political contributions must be published for all to see; and all waivers given and all government contracts awarded must be published, so if the same people donate money and get favours, influence peddling and corruption can be detected.


But the so-called campaign-reform legislation before the House does not call for public disclosure of any political contributions. Instead, large donations must be declared in secret to a committee of the ECJ, and small contributions do not have to be declared at all! There is nothing preventing a donor from splitting up a huge donation into 20 smaller amounts, and donating them under different names: his own, his wife's, his children, his household helper's. This so-called campaign-finance reform is a sham! There is nothing on the proposed law that will reduce influence peddling.

And what about partisan groups named 'Friends of (So-and-So)', and '(So-and-So) our Candidate', and 'Constituency Development Trusts', and the like. Do they have to declare their income and what they spend to the ECJ? Almost every candidate has a campaign manager, and several agents who fund-raise for them, and some of that money is retained for local expenses. Do all these campaign managers and agents also have to declare the funds they raise and what they spend? How will the ECJ know that all the (secret) agents have made their declarations, and have declared everything? Is the ECJ going to have an investigative arm to detect and prosecute false declarations? It is all a sham!

The ECJ, in its 2013 report on campaign-finance reform, recognised what you and I know: that corrupt politicians and private sector donors will try their best circumvent whatever reform measures are put in place: "The emerging wisdom on campaign financing is that there is no perfect or permanent legislation that can be formulated. Whatever measures are put in place, efforts will be made to circumvent them and to find loopholes, thus requiring new measures to be put in place subsequently. Prudence demands that acceptable, workable and effective measures are enacted subject to appropriate adjustments in the future." (Page 8)


Therefore, it is wise to think of all the possible loopholes before the legislation is passed, and to plug them, to make political corruption harder. The bill currently before the House has loopholes so big that you can drive a truck through them!

When our two major political parties agree on something, that is the time to be worried. The ECJ wrote this in 2013:

"The commission is of the view that state funding can act as a mechanism to restrict or limit the influence of money from illegal sources and its potential for corrupting and ultimately distorting the democratic process. State funding can serve as a hedge against candidates feeling obliged to turn to illegal sources or becoming obligated to certain permissible donors." (Page 17)

What utter rubbish! Nothing in the draft bill will restrict or limit political financing from illegal sources. The draft act is a strategy to allow politicians to plunder the public purse on top of whatever they get from other sources, including illegal ones.

If the plan was for them to trade full public disclosure for state funding, we would have real reform. The present bill allows political parties to plunder the public purse without conceding anything at all! What sort of reform is that?

Opposition Leader Andrew Holness says the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) will vote for the bill, but in conscience it cannot accept public campaign financing at this time. What kind of ethical gymnastics is this? If you have conscience problems with the bill, vote against it! Show some leadership!

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.