Peter Espeut | Politicians, private sector and privacy
Where does transparency end and privacy begin? Do serving politicians have the right to accept gifts from the private sector and have them remain secret? Because of the danger of the ‘ quid pro quo’ and influence peddling, the received wisdom is no! In the free world, in the public interest, politicians and political parties are required to declare to the public all gifts in cash and kind they receive, and the name(s) of the donor(s). When it comes to preventing corruption, neither the politician nor the private sector donor has any right to privacy. Transparency reigns supreme!
But not in Jamaica.
Jamaica has some hilarious campaign finance legislation. Politicians must declare in secret to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) contributions over J$250,000 received six months before and six months after an election, but not at other times. What is the assumption behind this? That politicians don’t need money outside of running parliamentary elections? That private sector donors will not seek political favours – a contract or waiver – outside the campaign period?
The ECJ is not allowed to make public the declarations made, to protect, I suppose, the privacy of the donor. The public might observe a land deal, or a waiver of duty, or a building permit to an individual or company, but without the knowledge that the beneficiary individual or company is a political donor – large or small – would not be in a position to make a link.
Our campaign finance legislation facilitates the quid pro quo; both our political parties who agree on the wording of the law have made sure of that; and the private sector is also happy that their political donations will be kept secret.
Recently we have had two situations where private sector firms have funded foreign consultants to the tune of millions of Jamaican dollars to support and further the political and diplomatic aims of Jamaican governments and political parties.
In 2009, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) paid US law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips US$49,892.62 (at the time more than J$5 million) as a retainer for lobbying services, hoping that the Obama administration would withdraw the extradition request for JLP garrison strongman Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke.
Manatt, Phelps & Phillips later claimed that the Jamaican State paid it US$15,000 more for lobbying work on its behalf.
Despite the wording of the contracts, the government denies that the government contracted anyone; it was the party, they claim. The involvement of government officials who identified as such in the discussions was “a mistake”. I’m sure it was!
Until now, the Jamaican people do not know which JLP party financiers up-fronted the multimillions, and whether the donor or donors might have received any state contracts in return. The major donor could have been anyone: it could have been a construction company which obtained contracts to build roads, or a supplier of computer hardware contracted by the government.
Privacy rights do not apply here. Transparency demands that the private sector donors come out of the shadows. Private sector donors to political parties have no right to secrecy; if they are ashamed of their political donations, they will know why. Hold on to your money then! If you are making a patriotic donation, then hold your head high! If you are looking for favours, then shame on you! That is the definition of political corruption.
PUBLIC FUNDS EXPENDED
More recently – according to documentary evidence – a contract was entered into between Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamina Johnson Smith – Jamaica’s candidate for secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations – in her personal capacity. Yet she did not run for the post of secretary general in her personal capacity, but as the nominee of the Government of Jamaica, and public funds were also expended in the campaign. The Government would have us believe that the US$99,000 (J$15 million) paid to public relations firm Finn Partners’ by private JLP donors to assist the campaign of Kamina Johnson Smith is a purely private matter, and that the Jamaican public should show no interest in who the secret donors were, and whether they might have received any favours in return.
It is thinking like this that causes most Jamaicans to believe that politics in this country is fundamentally corrupt! I cannot fault their reasoning.
What these two cases teach us is that you cannot have both political transparency and political privacy at the same time. Personal privacy is a different matter: the private and family lives of politicians and private sector leaders is their own business; but who gave money to whom, and who bought government land at whatever price, and who got contracts and waivers is not a private matter. The right to privacy does not extend to being allowed to break the law in private, or to be involved in chicanery in private.
The PNP is trumpeting about JLP corruption, but they had their turn with their noses in the political trough. If they win the next election, we have no evidence that they will be any better. They do not support public declaration of assets, or public revelation of political donations.
And the private sector is not demanding that their financial support be put to better use, towards national sustainable development, poverty reduction, and an end to our apartheid education system.
What can we look forward to over the next 60 years of political Independence? More of the same, I am afraid!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org