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Editorial: Where’s the campaign finance bill?

Published:Wednesday | July 29, 2015 | 12:00 AM

If our reading of the not-too-subtle signals is right, a general election in Jamaica is imminent; probably before year-end, rather than in December 2016 when it is constitutionally due.

Indeed, despite the challenges being posed by a handful of spoilers, the leadership of the two big parties - the People's National Party (PNP), which forms the Government, and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) - is furiously attempting to settle on candidates for the 63 parliamentary ridings. And although they refer to their activities by other names, it looks to us like the PNP and the JLP are really in the early phases of the campaign.

In a liberal democracy, such posturings are their absolute right. Further, under the Jamaican Constitution, and as is the norm in the Westminster-style parliamentary system, the timing of elections is the prerogative of the prime minister, which, in this case, means Portia Simpson Miller.

We, however, have a problem. Except that Mrs Simpson Miller's party is engaged in tactical manoeuvres, a kind of game to have opponents spend themselves ahead of the real exercise, it seems entirely likely that Jamaicans will again vote without campaign finance legislation. Mrs Simpson Miller's administration will have broken an at least implied promise, if not an actual one.

How Jamaican political parties fund their operations and finance their campaigns has been on the national agenda for more than two decades. The intensity of the debate has deepened in recent years as the economics of politics increased and the dangers this posed to the island's democracy grew more apparent.

By some estimates, Jamaica's recent election campaigns cost the parties, combined, around J$3 billion; although some calculations put the figure closer to J$5 billion. At these prices, Jamaica risks being among "the best democracy money can buy".

Jamaica faces two interlinked problems. The country is perceived by a great majority of its citizens to be highly corrupt, and its political institutions, including the Parliament and its political parties, are felt to be among the worst offenders. The political class is presumed to operate in the interest of itself and of those with deep pockets, who can afford to pay graft and purchase influence.


Transparency and accountability


The best antidote to such cynicism, whether it is founded in reality or on perception, is transparency and accountability. The proposal by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) on the latter may not have gone far enough, but its ideas on the accounting obligations of political parties, and how they report campaign donations, represented a move in the right direction.

After much back and forth and procrastination between and by the parties, the ECJ's ideas were formally brought to Parliament towards the end of 2014. Legislators engaged in a mostly high-minded debate. A bill was to follow soon thereafter.

In March, Phillip Paulwell, the leader of government business in the House, said he would have a bill in hand in days. He has since gone quiet on the matter. It now appears that the legislation will miss this Parliament and election cycle.

We remind the Government of the foundation on which the ECJ rested the proposed reforms: "To minimise or regulate influence peddling as well as obviate the possibility of the State being hijacked or dictated to by narrow interest groups."