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Should public money finance political campaigns?

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Having looked at the proposals in previous weeks put forward by the Organisation of American States (OAS) to political parties in this hemisphere, for regulations pertaining to the governance of these parties and for establishing an agreed framework governing party financing and campaigns, we can now move on to what is certain to be a hotly debatable issue. This concerns whether public funds should be provided for party political campaigning.{{more}}

This question arises since in the OAS proposals, restrictions are to be placed on the current absolute freedom (in our case at least) of political parties to raise funds from whatever sources and in whatever amounts they succeed in so doing. For political purposes, right through the Caribbean, parties accuse each other of accepting millions from the business sector, from external sources, even from alleged drug and criminal financiers. It attracts public attention but is nothing more than campaign tactics, for thus far, few parties if any in the region, have demonstrated any real commitment to being subjected to any regulations controling this area.

Perhaps a good indicator of this is the regional silence from these same parties, since having received the OAS proposals. As for Jamaica, where the OAS put forward the proposals at a Conference in August, there has been precious little comment from either party who attended or those which were not in attendance, and who must have received a copy of the OAS model legislation by now. But these are the same parties huffing and puffing about party financing. How serious are they? Similarly, allegations from political parties about whom is receiving millions from whom, get extensive media coverage and set a lot of tongues wagging; but why is the media not even publicizing the OAS proposals, why are we not blah-blahing on talk radio about them? If we truly believe that significant funding, either from external sources or from ill-gotten loot, is a threat to our democracy, should we not be looking at finding solutions?

In last week’s column we saw that the OAS legislation put forward as a model, treated this matter of financing of political parties and election campaigns with utmost gravity. Thus, it proposed a clear ban on donations from external sources whether from private or public sources. Accepting donations from such “prohibited donors” would be made an offence, punishable on conviction by fining and confining. The legislation also prohibits coercion (“political or any other pressure on a person”, is the phrase used) in order to (a) receive donations; (b) benefit from contributions; or (c) have the person incur any campaign expense. Interestingly, it also addresses a situation very familiar to us all by stating in Sec. 52 (2) that: “A political party or a candidate shall not promise political or any other counter-favours, privileges or other personal benefits of any kind, to a person in return for-(a) any donation or contribution; (b) the person incurring campaign expense”.

Are these not the matters we scream about in terms of influencing the vote? Do we not, especially when on the losing side, complain about how this candidate or that party, promised this or that, in return for the vote? Such proposals should at least stir our interest about how we can actually DO SOMETHING about it; the least we can do is familiarize ourselves with it.

STATE FUNDING PROPOSED

With all the proposed prohibitions and restrictions on party financing, the OAS anticipates the question from parties -so how do we raise finances?

In reply, it must be pointed out that private donations, including anonymous ones, from local sources are quite in order. What the legislation does is to suggest restrictions on the size of such donations and to require reporting by parties and candidates to the Political Parties Commission on such contributions. But, the legislation also places responsibility on the state to provide funding for what it considers, a fundamental element of our democratic process, the political parties. How should this be done?

The proposal is for the establishment by the Commission of a Fund “to be known as the Political Party Fund”. The purpose of this Fund is to subsidize political parties which qualify for funding under the legislation. The Fund is to be made up of budgetary allocations, donations to the Commission, any proceeds from fines and property forfeited from offences committed under the Act, as well as any other revenues including benefits from the possible investment of Commission funds.

Now for the quarrel about who gets what from this Fund. Sec. 60 of the model legislation proposes that in order to qualify, parties must be represented in Parliament and that allocations to them ought to be in accordance with a prescribed formula based on the proportion of seats held in the Parliament with equity borne in mind. It is worth noting that in this allocation, the legislation is mindful of a political problem of floor-crossing. Thus any person elected to Parliament on one party ticket, thereby enabling the party to qualify for funding, will not be entitled to that allocation if he leaves the party and crosses the floor. The political party on whose ticket he/she was elected will retain the allocation.

Finally, there are clearly stated purposes for which state funding can be used, and conversely, purposes for which they may not be used. Among the latter is any form of remuneration for the Parliamentarian, who is already paid from public funds, and for establishing any business or enterprise for profit.

These represent a summary of this historic attempt to for the first time lift us above the level of futile public wrangling about the source of party financing, while being powerless to stop the subversion of our democracy by selfish and sinister forces. Legislation by itself will not solve all the problems, but at least it is a major advance and provides a framework to help us to begin to tackle it. Should it not become part of the intelligent debate? Or do we prefer to stay at the level of week-to-week allegations good for political commess, but no help in stemming the subversion of our democracy.

The choice is ours.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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