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Parliamentarians want to spend more than $10 million each on political campaigns

Published:Tuesday | November 24, 2015 | 12:00 AMDaraine Luton

Parliamentarians yesterday signalled that the maximum allowable spending on political campaigns was too low and would have to be increased to realistic levels.

Currently, each candidate can spend up to $10 million on his campaign, up from $3 million.

In opening the debate yesterday on the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2015, or the so-called campaign finance bill, Phillip Paulwell, minister with responsibility for electoral matters, indicated that parliamentarians should seek audience with the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) if they wanted the $10 million ceiling for campaign spending to be increased.

With some opposition members, including leader Andrew Holness, yesterday suggesting that the $10 million was low, Paulwell said that they should get together and change the law.

"If it is not realistic, let us increase the amount," he said.

The $10 million expense ceiling has been built into the bill.

"We don't want to insert a figure (in the bill) that is subject to severe penalties if it is unworkable and if it is going to lead to every member breaching. So we are prepared, in the course of this debate, to look at that figure to make sure that it is realistic, and so as not to breach the tradition, we have to consult with the selected members of the commission before we pass this law, hopefully, next week," Paulwell said.

By moving to increase the limit, the Parliament risks disturbing a convention that sees legislators passing, as is, all bills and approving, without change, all reports sent to it by the ECJ.

The Portia Simpson Miller-led Government has already been forced to go back to supporting state funding of political campaigns after having stated that it would be seeking to remove the clause from the campaign finance bill.

Paulwell, yesterday, said that when he initially declared that his side would not support state funding, the Government was being "very sensitive and responsive to the will of our people".

He said, however, that the Government had backed away from that position in order to preserve the convention.

The proposal for the State to fund political campaigns was robustly debated in the Houses of Parliament when a report from the ECJ, with proposals for campaign-finance reform, was considered.


Electorate mindful


The clause proposes that a registered political party that meets certain requirements, including having its annual financial statements independently audited by a registered public accountant, be entitled to receive state funding in each financial year.

"The Jamaican electorate now, they are very mindful and very cagey about political parties receiving funds from the state," Paulwell told The Gleaner earlier this month.

"Based on the canvassing, it is not a matter that the electorate would support, and so we didn't want to upset and anger the electorate. Having reviewed it, we would not be able to convince our side to support it," he added.

But speaking in Parliament yesterday, Paulwell said it was important that the bill be passed without amendment, which has been a long established convention.

"In light of that and so as not to be in breach of that tradition, the Government is removing its reservation on this section in the hope that all sections are passed by both sides, thus maintaining the tradition," Paulwell said.

Warmington, who opposed the clause in the report, told The Gleaner that he would not support the amendment.

"If you have put it in the bill, I am not supporting any amendment. It came to Parliament and they accepted the report. I was the only person who voted against it then, so if you have 62 persons who voted for the report in its entirety, how can you talk about not wanting to go with it at this stage?" he said recently.

Paulwell had written to the selected members of the ECJ seeking support for amendment to the clause but was told that the convention should be preserved.

State funding will be available to all candidates contesting as members of registered political parties or independent candidates who received at least five per cent of the votes cast in the last election.

Paulwell said that it would depend on the availability of funds in the national coffers and it had to be approved in the national Budget.

Paulwell said upon reflection, especially in light of comments made by Everald Warmington, member of parliament for South West St Catherine, that they decided to preserve the tradition.

"It is that provision that we are agreeing to include, so it is clear that under the current financing regime we would not be able to accommodate any such funds from the Consolidated Fund for the near future," he said.

In addition to state funding, the bill also proposes the setting up of a national election fund, which would enable individuals, companies, other entities, and Jamaica diaspora groups to make contributions to campaign financing.

These monies would be disbursed to candidates within 180 days after an election is held for the purpose of reimbursing expenses incurred by the candidates in their campaigns. Up to 40 per cent of the amount spent by each candidate would be reimbursed from the national campaign fund.

Paulwell said that the bill would redound to the benefit of all Jamaicans "and the enhancement of our democratic way of life".

He said that there was no perfect legislative scheme for campaign financing and that the amendments being tabled were "fundamental and far-reaching", arguing that in addition to increasing transparency, the bill also sought to reduce corruption in public life.

"Without campaign finance reform, our cherished democracy can be captured and hijacked by unsavoury characters," Paulwell said.

Debate on the bill has been suspended until next week when it is expected to be put to a vote.