Tue | Jun 15, 2021

Election funding limit absurd

Published:Sunday | November 29, 2015 | 12:00 AMKevin K.O. Sangster

Parliament is currently debating a set of proposed amendments to the Representation of the People Act in relation to political campaign finance on account of recommendations from the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ).

By convention, Parliament accepts without amendments any such recommendations from the ECJ and, consequently, is now hard-pressed to continue same despite concerns by some parliamentarians about some of the recommendations.

I wonder why the parliamentarians, 63 of whom were elected by we, the people, to make laws for the good governance of this country, would submit blindly to the desires of the ECJ, a creature of Parliament, when the ECJ, unlike the Parliament, is not directly accountable to the people of this country?

Being guided by recommendations from the ECJ is one thing, but quite another to being forced to effectively accept such recommendations as law without the ability to make any well-considered amendments. The ECJ, after all, is not a lawmaking body, whatever it's positive impact on curbing the one-time severely violent and antagonistic nature of our politics.

One of the contentious ECJ recommendations is that the spending limit per candidate in an election campaign (that is, the period between nomination day and election day) be increased from the meagre and unrealistic $3 million to $10 million. Several parliamentarians believe, rightly so, that $10 million is still an unrealistic sum.

In our system of competitive elective democracy, money is necessary, and the political parties and candidates must have access to funds to meaningfully play their part in the political process. It requires money for them to make their case through campaign advertisements and other bona fide campaign activities to convince the majority of the electorate to support their respective candidacies. I do not believe, however, that any such money should come from the national coffers, as proposed by the ECJ.

While there is a legitimate government interest in guarding against dirty and big money unduly influencing our elections and undermining our democracy, there is no such interest in limiting how much a candidate can properly spend in an election campaign. Therefore, rather than increasing the spending limit, Parliament should be moving to remove any such limit.

Having and maintaining a spending cap on elections would be a curtailment on the candidates' fundamental freedom of expression as provided for in our Constitution, as it places an undue burden on the candidates by unreasonably restricting their legitimate campaign activities.


Unwise restriction


Moreover, such a restriction curbs healthy rivalry in our competitive democracy, as there is no reasonable basis for there to be such measures against a candidate or party being able to legitimately raise as much money as necessary to properly fund its election campaign.

Rather than limiting how much candidates can spend, the Government should seek to strengthen and rigorously enforce the penalties to ensure that candidates do not use money legitimately raised to engage in illegal and offensive practices like vote-buying which serve to undermine our democracy. A restriction to this end would be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society like ours.

Parliament should also not seek to regulate campaign contributions merely to limit the amount of money in political campaigns or to restrict the extent of the political participation of some in order to further the relative influence of others. After all, even those who contribute to political parties and candidates, so long as their money is clean and is not being used to further quid pro quo corruption, have a constitutionally protected right to advocate for, and support, the political candidates or parties of their choice, so reasonable steps must be taken in determining to what extent any limit is placed on their ability to so contribute.

The bottom line is that what is needed from the Government as regards campaign finance are more effective, well-conceived and properly implemented regulations and disclosure requirements to help control the adverse effects of money in our politics.

It is not the amount of money per se that is the problem, but the source of the money and the manner in which it is spent.

- Kevin K.O. Sangster is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and sangstek@msn.com.