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Party and political campaign financing

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Just before we take a timely look at the issue of political party financing especially as it relates to funding of election campaigns, the political confusion surrounding the work of the Electoral and Boundaries Commission continues to be the source of much controversy. There are even calls for the disbanding of the current Commission and the appointment of a new one. From all appearances, the Court may well be the final arbiter of the impasse.{{more}} This has implications for the holding of general elections, the timing of such a poll and settling the question as to whether there will be 15 or 17 seats at stake the next time around.

What is of equal importance is what do we do after that? How can the lessons gleaned from the work and actions of this Commission guide us in the ground rules for the operations of further Commissions? Are we just to adopt a pragmatic approach to getting the present problems solved, only for repetitions to occur at a future juncture? These are important issues but we often shelve them in our haste for short-term immediate solutions. Both contending parties seek a way out, that is in their interests at present, but what of the future? Should we not put our considerable talents to use in devising more appropriate rules governing the composition and sphere of operations of this Commission? We ignore them at our own peril.

But back to the original topic, party financing. Here again, the piecemeal approach is very much in evidence. Over the years, we have allowed political campaigns to become very expensive. No longer do public meetings and the speeches of candidates suffice, no we must have a BIG BANG – huge rallies with all the glitz and glamour, with high-priced artistes, mostly non-local, providing the entertainment. Add to that the huge billboards, the TV ads, and costs really mount up. We have not here included a significant cost, the “grease money”, spent during the campaign.

Where do the parties get these huge sums? Certainly not from the fund-raising events held at constituency and national levels? Significant injections must come from some source. Traditionally, elements in the business sector have chipped in with contributions, making what for them are “prudent investments”, expecting to be rewarded should the party so funded emerge victorious. However so grandiose have the campaigns become, that there is strong suspicion of external funding. This is at the root of charges and counter-charges by the ULP and NDP about sources of finance. While not for one moment ignoring the allegations, it is of paramount importance that the wider question of political party funding be addressed for once and for all. It is a potential source of subverting the democratic will of our people.

In doing this series of articles, the model legislation drafted by the Organisation of American States (OAS) is used as reference material. In the previous article, we looked at proposals for the registration and regulation of political parties. Those provisions extend to requirements for the parties to be financially accountable as well. Thus parties, which are legally registered, would be required to maintain accounting records showing “all sums of money received and expended by the political party” on a day-to-day basis and its assets and liabilities. Such financial records and any contributions or donations, in cash or kind made to the party, would become part of its annual financial statement submitted to the Political Parties Commission.

The OAS has also proposed means of enforcing such provisions, including making falsification of accounts, a punishable offence. Parties can themselves lose their legal registration for failure to comply with the law. Ought we not to be busy discussing the “ball-park” regulations even as we argue who got money from where?

Part 5 of the OAS model legislation gets to the heart of the matter, “Donations and Campaign Financing”. It begins by making clear definitions of such matters as anonymous contribution, campaign expenses, gifts and donations to political parties, election advertisements etc. The definitions are very comprehensive making for transparency. What is particularly relevant for us is a section, (32), dealing with what is described as “permissible donors”. This makes it clear that “donations to a political party or a candidate may only be made by a citizen…. A firm, partnership or enterprise owned by a citizen….” If there is still any doubts as to intentions, the OAS proposes banning donations from outside the country whether from a foreigner, foreign government, foreign organization, foreign agency or political party, even from international organizations such as those of employer or employee associations. In other words, political party funding must be an internal affair.

While donations are permissible, the draft legislation attempts to place limits, prohibiting donors from making donations exceeding a sum to be decided locally, in any one calendar year, and also restricting candidates and parties from accepting donations above this quantum in the year in question. As mentioned earlier all such donations, in cash, kind or of services must be reported as part of the annual financial statement with detailed information on the donor and type and size of donation.

The final part of these comprehensive proposals relate to a proposal which is sure to generate considerable debate – that of funding of registered parties from state funds. We shall take a peep at these next.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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