Thu | Aug 11, 2022

Editorial | ECJ must act with urgency

Published:Friday | August 5, 2022 | 12:05 AM

There are valid explanations. Which makes it all the more important that the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) provides Jamaicans with the reasons for the tortoise-like pace with which it is going about providing an official report of how much money the island’s political parties raised for their election campaigns in 2020.

For, in the absence of this formal exposition of this data, and its easy public accessibility, cynics might be tempted to lump the ECJ with the parties and their preference for opacity over how they are funded. The other way to put it is of the ECJ, an institution that won deserved respect for rebuilding integrity and trust in Jamaican elections, suffering a catastrophic erosion of confidence.

Under the law, political parties can spend up to J$630 million on a campaign, which is separate from the J$15-million cap placed on the expenditure of each candidate. So, with 63 parliamentary seats, a single party’s candidates could, combined, splash J$945 million on their bid to reach Gordon House. Add that to the ponytail outlay by the central party, and the whole bill for the exercise could reach J$1.575 billion.

That is a lot of money, the gathering of which, even now, is largely opaque. It is easy, therefore, for special interests and deep-pocketed individuals to, from the shadows, control politics. The new law covering campaign finance reporting is a first, even if limited, stab at transparency.

DISCLOSE TO THE ECJ

The parties now have to disclose to the ECJ how much money, in cash and kind, they raised during the reporting period, which is the six months before a general election is constitutionally due – or before then if an election is called early – and six months after the poll.

Further, parties and candidates have to say who gives J$250,000 or more. And individuals and entities who have government contracts must report their contributions, if the gifts were made within two years of entering the arrangements. They are similarly required to report those contributions if the contracts are entered within two years of providing the gifts.

The parties and candidates have a deadline of six months after an election to submit these detailed filings. On the other hand, the ECJ is obligated, after each election, to publish the total amounts raised by registered political parties, as well as “a list of contributions of any amount exceeding” J$1 million “received during the reporting period”. By the ECJ’s interpretation of the law, that does not permit it to name the contributors.

Significantly, the law does not say how quickly ECJ should publish this information, notwithstanding the fact that political parties and candidates have up to six months after the vote to make their declarations. We had hoped, however, that the ECJ was keen to infuse a new urgency into the enterprise. Indeed, in a public statement on February 24 last year, the commission reminded “the two registered political parties and 139 candidates” that they had up to March 2 to “submit their final disclosure reports”.

Since then, the only publicly available figures in the election spend were those in an April 17 report by this newspaper, based on data extracted from the ECJ via an Access to Information request. It showed that the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, between them, raised J$298.5 million. The election was just shy of two years ago.

If the ECJ has refined these figures, or published the same information elsewhere, including on its website, they have not been easy to find. Or we, like others, have been grossly incompetent at the search.

IS NOT SUFFICIENT

That The Gleaner used a specific legal instrument to request, and receive, the information is worthwhile and significant. But that is not sufficient. And the ECJ should not be satisfied.

The public’s knowledge of, and easy accessibility to, this data is important to democracy. For while the commissioners’ access to the information may be a deterrent to the most egregious inclination to pay the piper, they are not the only arbiters of when an instrument of democracy, and democratic engagement, is going out of tune or playing to a limited audience.

In any event, the ECJ commissioners have an obligation to fulfil. They should do it in a timely manner, unless they can present a compelling case of force majeure, which they have not. Either way, the problem must be remedied.

In the meantime, the law covering the registration of political parties requires that the parties, among other things, must file audited financial reports to the ECJ annually. The commission is also required to keep a register of political parties, which, in addition to the physical document in its offices, “shall be available for inspection on a website maintained by the commission”.

If a digital version of the register is available on the ECJ’s website, finding it is hardly intuitive. So, it is not easy to determine what information is in the register by going the digital route. Or, again, maybe those who have looked, did not look keenly enough. Nonetheless, in the spirit of transparency, the ECJ should make the information super easy to find.