The Private Member’s Bill submitted for Parliament’s consideration by maverick MP Franco Debono is a step in the right direction. It seeks to lead Parliament to take the first concrete steps on regulating the financing of politics.
Having had the opportunity on behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika to take part in discussions with representatives of the parliamentary political parties and other interested persons, I consider that it would be appropriate to put on record AD’s views.
In the Bill, there are three fundamental issues that need to be reconsidered.
The first point is the proposed law’s enforcer. The Bill takes the cue from UK legislation and proposes the Electoral Commission as the enforcer. In considering this proposal at a local level, one has to note that the Electoral Commission is dominated by the parliamentary parties with one half of its members being nominated by the political party in government and the other half by the party in opposition. The Chief Electoral Commissioner is a public officer nominated by the government.
In practice, this means that nominees of the two political parties in Parliament will be entrusted to police the financing of the political system.
One has also to consider to what extent section 6 of the Public Administration Act, dealing with ministers’ instructions to public officers, would have a bearing on the new function added to the Electoral Commission’s duties.
AD feels that Malta can look towards its success stories – the office of the Ombudsman and the office of the Auditor General – which are functioning as officers of Parliament and report directly to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Being elected subject to the support of two thirds of the members of the House means that both the Ombudsman and the Auditor General enjoy support across the political spectrum.
Hence, appointing a new officer of Parliament responsible for policing the financing of politics is, in AD’s view, a much better solution than assigning this responsibility to the Electoral Commission, which, unfortunately, is another tool of the two-party monopoly on the island.
The second point to be made is that the proposed Private Member’s Bill introduces an element of over-regulation of the political parties. Unfortunately, it also tries to transform political decisions that parties have to take from time to time into complex issues by establishing unnecessary detailed procedures.
AD considers that only two basic issues are to be considered necessary for the registration of political parties. These are the existence of a democratic party structure together with adherence to political principles compatible with a democratic society.
Additionally, administrative information coupled with updated information on party officials who would be responsible for carrying out the duties relative to the regulation of the financing of politics would, in AD’s view, be enough.
Other areas should be left as they are now in the hands of the political parties themselves. The third issue of fundamental importance is the lacuna which the Private Member’s Bill allows relative to anonymous donations.
It is submitted that anonymous donations should be forbidden. If this is not done political parties cannot be in a position to check and certify whether and to what extent the financial contributions by any individual adds up to the amount that must be reported.
The Bill rightly accepts confidentiality as to the identity of those donating small amounts. This is as it should be. But confidentiality should not be mixed up with anonymity as, otherwise, parties will not be in a position to auto-regulate the monies received.
There are a thousand and one opinions as to what the details of the Bill should be. There are those who think that the limits are too low or too high. These details are matters on which it should not be too difficult to find a solution.
During the discussions held at the parliamentary select committee last Monday, another very important point was made of relevance to local council and European elections.
It was pointed out that there have been a number of instances where candidates for such elections were openly supported by bodies that are not political parties. Residents’ associations, band clubs, football clubs and the hunting federation have on occasion presented candidates for these elections.
It was noted that this is an area that should be looked at in detail in order to avoid a situation where such associations collected or received funds for one purpose and then spend part of these funds for political purposes, that is for a purpose that was not intended by those who donated such funds.
The debate on regulating political financing has been going on for quite some time. It is about time that decisions are taken.
The author is deputy chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party – and is its spokesman on sustainable development and home affairs.