Politics for the few

Ralph Cassar – Secretary General, AD

Maybe you think that the issue is not important, and that politics is already the preserve of the few. Maybe you believe in a free-for-all where as the Maltese saying goes ‘min jiflaħ iħawwel’, the truth is that the proposals for regulating party and candidate financing and spending has just been reduced to whitewashing and condoning what has been happening outside and against the law for years on end.

The Sunday Times (25 September) has reported that individual candidate spending limits will b e increased substantially to €30,000, €10,000 and to between €3,000 and €5,000 for European Parliament, general and local elections respectively. Nowhere is the spending by political parties mentioned.

What does this mean? It means going back to the politics if the early 20th century when the landed gentry only had effective access to the ‘democratic’ process. Those proposing the new limits are either cut off from the reality of the vast majority of employees and workers, however qualified and interested they are in contributing to society through political action. It means that teachers, thousands in other professions who work in the public and private sector, managers, technicians, not to mentioned those with incomes below the average wage of around €15,000, will be effectively severely disadvantaged if they pluck up the courage to engage with politics. Who has a disposable income of €10,000, when the  median National Equivalised Income (NEI) which takes into account dependents on wage earners is a paltry €9,129? Maybe a couple of lawyers with hundreds of clients who charge a couple of hundreds of Euros and are used to incomes of hundreds of thousands of Euros. Not even a relatively well paid employee can afford €10,000 in campaign expenses, let alone  €30,000 for EP elections. The reality is that we live in a country where €30,000 is considered a very good salary. A quick look at statistics shows that most people, including professionals barely make the €30,000 mark. Only part-time MPs are lucky enough to earn a part-time top-up salary of €28,000. The figures proposed by Dr. Debono reveal the mindset of people for whom the MPs honorarium is mere pocket money. These rules will increase and favour those who have connections and can tap on funds from private interests and strong lobbies. This is laissez-faire, right wing politics at its best.

What about local councils? Why is there a need to increase the maximum spending ceiling so much? The current spending limit is good enough. Well, maybe for those used to organising lavish vote-buying receptions it is just too little.

The proposals do not in any why change anything. They just justify the current disregard of the law and do not in any way tackle the relationship between power and monied interests. It leaves the parties to spend their way to power rather than encourage politics based on discussion and an exchange of ideas. Worse still it will close the door to thousands of potential candidates who happen to be employees and favour a certain sector of society. The proposed rules, at least as reported in the Sunday Times, just confirm the status quo. It seems that we’re being dragged back to the past where the privileged few are favoured over the vast majority of lesser mortals, not just in practise but also by law.

***

The article in The Sunday Times: 

Sunday, September 25, 2011 , by

Kurt Sansone

MEPs’ campaign expenses to rise to €30,000

Candidates contesting European Parliament elections will be able to spend up to €30,000 on their campaigns according to a proposal in a draft Bill to regulate political party financing, The Sunday Times has learnt.

Disclosure and transparency are the fundamental pillars of any law regulating party financing, as is effective enforcement

Sources said candidates contesting a general election would have their personal expense allowance increased to €10,000 from €1,400.

The proposals being considered by the government also speak of expense thresholds for candidates contesting local elections.

The sources said there would be three separate thresholds for local elections depending on the size of the locality being contested, with the largest being capped at €5,000 and the smallest at €3,000.

The issue of candidate financing came to the fore in the 2009 European Parliament elections when two Nationalist Party candidates took an oath before a magistrate in court declaring that their campaign expenses were in breach of the electoral law.

PN candidates Edward Demicoli and Frank Portelli had said in court that while their personal expenses were within the legal limit of €18,635, the support by third parties meant they surpassed it.

The expenditure limits set out years ago by the electoral law have often been described as outdated.

The Bill currently being fine-tuned will also establish monetary thresholds for donations to political parties. Sources said a decision still has to be taken on the maximum permissible amount for a donation to be legal and the threshold above which donors will have to be made public.

The Bill is being piloted by parliamentary assistant in the Office of the Prime Minister, Franco Debono. However, when contacted yesterday Dr Debono would not confirm the thresholds.

“We are fine-tuning the Bill and rather than getting lost in the thresholds the more important thing is to have the structure in place,” he said, speaking from New York where he was accompanying the Prime Minister on his visit to the UN General Assembly meeting.

In the US, Dr Debono met with the chair of the Washington-based Federal Election Commission, Cynthia Bauerly, on political party financing.

The commission is an independent regulatory agency tasked to administer and enforce federal campaign financing laws.

“It is clear from my talks with Ms Bauerly that even in a country like the US with a well-developed regulatory system, any law on party financing remains a work in progress that needs to be changed regularly as it gets interpreted by the courts,” Dr Debono said.

An important aspect highlighted in the talks, he added, was the fundamental principle that the identity of donors should be disclosed.

“Disclosure and transparency are the fundamental pillars of any law regulating party financing, as is effective enforcement,” Dr Debono said.

A government-appointed commission, chaired by former President Anthony Galdes and composed among others of members from the three main political parties, in 1995 proposed that donations above €11,647 be made public and donations above €23,294 be made illegal.

The commission also proposed state financing for political parties linked to electoral success and capped at 0.02 per cent of GDP.

The proposals never became law and the Nationalist Party at the time wanted higher thresholds.

Today, 16 years later party financing remains unregulated as the two largest parties have grown into large commercial organisations running their own television and radio stations and mobile phone services.

2 Responses to “Politics for the few”

  1. Godfrey Camilleri Says:

    Well I don’t agree with the arguments brought forward by Ralph. If one decides to contest the EP elections, and aspiring to start getting the high MEP salaries, one surely must be able to invest a substantial sum to make such a major step. And one will need reach out to the whole population and not just a couple of districts. As for the general election a €10,000 figure also sounds reasonable, though it may be a bit on the high side if it is to give a chance to all people from all walks of life to contest on a level playing field. Same comment applies to the local elections ceilings.

  2. Ralph Cassar Says:

    The amounts proposed without party financing rules, including state funding will just contribute to making democracy the preserve of the few – an oligarchy.

    It is just an exercise to whitewash the overspending by PN and PL candidates. Enforcing the current law would have been a good start.

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