Sat | Jul 31, 2021

Public election funding

Published:Wednesday | April 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Din Duggan

Everald Warmington, member of parliament for South West St Catherine, thinks public funding for election campaigns is a terrible idea. Mr Warmington believes that if a prospective candidate doesn't possess the personal means to fund her own campaign - which could easily amount to several million dollars, given the skyrocketing price of democracy - she should not seek elected office.

Mr Warmington claims to finance his own campaigns. He is, apparently, a very wealthy man. I'm happy for Mr Warmington and his financial success. But, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), most Jamaicans are not Everald Warmington.

Most people seeking elected office will naturally require financial contributions. This is healthy in a democracy. Elected office should not be the playground of the wealthy, but a calling through which noble, intelligent and inspirational people, from all socio-economic backgrounds, represent their communities.

Mr Warmington's extremism aside, the real question is not whether political contributions should be allowed, but where they should come from and how best to manage and monitor them as they flow through the electoral system.

State funding is the most inclusive and least corruptive method to finance political campaigns in Jamaica. The outspoken MP disagrees, arguing emphatically that "we should never burden the poor people of this country to finance our campaign". Of course, Mr Warmington is misguided. Public financing of elections would empower - not burden - ordinary Jamaicans, but more on that in a moment.

Political financing and corruption

The 2011 Global Integrity Report asserted, in no uncertain terms, that "political financing remains the number-one corruption risk around the world". Most Latin American countries now recognise this risk and have, in some form or another, adopted public financing of elections to mitigate it. After a series of election reforms in Mexico - which until a decade ago was dominated by a single, authoritarian party - public financing, accessible to all relevant political parties, now amounts to more than 90 per cent of total election spending.

The same corruptive forces - including drug trafficking and money laundering - that prompted political finance reforms in Latin America have long haunted Jamaica. In its report to Parliament last November, the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) argued, "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".

The ECJ is generally correct, but it is a few Novembers too late. Our democratic process is already distorted.

Election finance is a virtual Wild West with few binding rules and fewer meaningful repercussions for contravening those rules. Ultimately, it is not the 'big man' in Jacks Hill who is harmed by this state of affairs; it is working-class and other ordinary citizens who have long borne the brunt of the fiscal burden without reaping the benefits of adequate representation.

Quid pro quo

When a contributor gives money to a political party or candidate, that supporter naturally requires something in return - leaving the recipient indebted to the contributor. If Jamaica had a public campaign finance system in place, elected officials would be indebted and accountable to the general public - empowering ordinary taxpayers who would finance campaigns (and cast votes).

Instead, a shadowy agglomeration of unknown contributors funds our political process. This assemblage indubitably includes drug and gun traffickers, money launderers and other criminal elements. If these criminal entities are bankrolling election campaigns, naturally it is them to whom the parties and candidates are largely beholden - to the exclusion of ordinary Jamaicans.

I can imagine a dramatic scenario in which one of these criminal organisations, by virtue of its political contributions, secures considerable influence over one of our political parties. I shudder to think what would happen if a major foreign power were to someday demand the arrest and extradition of the organisation's mastermind.

The party might feel compelled to protect the interests of its cash cow. Things would become even more complicated should that party be the governing party. It might leverage the resources of the State to circuitously defend the rights of its benefactor. Eventually, the foreign power would force our Government to acquiesce.

A violent stand-off might then ensue in attempting to apprehend the criminal mastermind - potentially destabilising the country and wreaking social and economic havoc. Many lives might be lost - 73 perhaps - presumably some of the same poor souls for whom Mr Warmington cares so intensely.

But maybe that scenario is unrealistic. Perhaps I might be overstating the importance of public campaign financing. Or perhaps not.

Din Duggan is an attorney working as a consultant with a global legal search firm. Email him at columns@gleanerjm.com or dinduggan@gmail.com, or view his past columns at facebook.com/dinduggan and twitter.com/YoungDuggan.