A draft party funding law started being debated today by the Parliamentary Committee for the Consolidation of Laws. The Bill was prepared by Franco Debono, who also chairs the committee.

See details of the proposed law at : http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120105/local/Details-of-Debono-s-draft.401038

Dr Debono said the purpose of the committee's discussion was to spark debate on a matter which was last before parliament in 1995 as part of the deliberations on the basis of the Galdes Report.

Today's committee was attended by, among others, representatives of the political parties, former party officials and observers of the political scene.

Prof Kenneth Wain (who chairs the NGOs commission) said NGOs, including political parties, were not obliged to register with the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations. He felt that registration should be mandatory for all NGOs. Non-registration made such organisations ineligible to state aid, a condition which Prof Wain said needed to be enforced consistently. Political parties never registered with the commissioner.

Dr Debono said political parties were somewhat different from other NGOs since their ultimate aim was to have their candidates elected to parliament.

Prof Wain said there was no proper definition and one could have lobby groups with poitical aims.

Dr Francis Zammit Dimech (PN) said a consideration was whether to have an ad hoc law for political parties.

Jose' Herrera (PL) said the Voluntary Organisations Act was never meant to regulate political parties and he felt there should be a separate law since political parties could not be regulated in the same way as NGOs. Regulation of the parties should be within the General Elections Act.

Dr Debono agreed, pointing out that it would be the Electoral Commission which would regulate the political parties.

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca (PL) said political parties were different from NGOs and had commercial elements within them. She agreed that they should have specific legislation or legislation within the General Elections Act.

Carmel Caccopardo (Alternattiva Demokratika) said he agreed that party funding should fall within the electoral law, but one of his concerns was the composition of the Electoral Commission, formed wholly by members nominated by the PN and the PL.

Paul Borg Olivier (General Secretary PN) said the first priority should be the strengthening of administrative and financial transparency.

Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi (President PL) said proper definition was needed as to why a political party needed to be registered. Was this for recognition as a juridical body under the civil code? This discussion went beyond this point and one needed to establish the purpose, of which transparency came first. He said the Galdes Report formed a basis which could be developed.

STATE FUNDING OF POLITICAL PARTIES

Former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon said a decision was needed on whether there should be state or private funding of political parties, or both. Public opinion in Malta, as in the UK, was against state funding of the political parties. The bill before the House appeared to be against state funding.

He said that in enacting a law one should avoid over-regulation which created undue interference by the state in party administration. It should also be ensured that the law did not hinder the creation of new political parties, which were an essential element of democracy.

He also felt that spending limits for candidates should be a proportion of the parliamentary honorarium.

Dr Debono said the bill did not include state funding because the people were against it and because there was no transparency in the administration of political parties. One should first establish transparency and once that structure was in place, one could explore the possibility of state funding.

Michael Briguglio (AD chairman) said Malta had a two weights and two measures. Political parties already received a measure of state funds, without regulation, while NGOs were audited to the minutest detail. AD was in favour of state funding of political parties and there were various means how this could be checked. AD was of the view that political parties should be given funds according to how many votes they got, say €3 per vote.

Donations should be regulated too and donations over a certain amount should be declared. Limited liability companies owned by the parties should submit their accounts to the MFSA.

Mr Caccopardo said anonymous donations should not be allowed. These would be a threat to democracy.

Dr Debono said a US court decision had said small anonymous donations may not be banned before of the right of association. However the Bill provided safeguards against a situation where a number of small donations collectively amounted to a big donation. 

Dr Borg Olivier said one could balance small anonymous donations with the right of association and accountability in a way which did not allow abuse.

Peter Darmanin (former PN treasurer) said he favoured small donations by party supporters. From one scheme, linked to supporters' birthdays, he had raised Lm71,000 (Maltese currency). He disagreed that anonymous donations should be banned. He knew hundreds of people who donated small amounts and did not wish their names to be made public for various reasons, such as family reasons.

As for bigger donations, he was against them, however well meaning, because they could be a danger to democracy and an opportunity for blackmail. There was no such thing as a free lunch. The issue was about what constituted a big donation. Surely €5,000 was not big?

Dr Debono said the bill proposed to ban donations of over €50,000 from the same source per calendar year - eg donations from the same family.

Ms Coleiro Preca said she was also 'scared' of big donations to political parties, and, particularly,  to candidates. The issue was how to regulate them. Who would a candidate who received large donations be actually representing?

Dr Debono said a candidate should be obliged to report that donation to his party.

Dr Herrera shared Ms Coleiro Preca's concerns but said one could have loyalty to a candidate but not a party.

Dr Debono said a link was needed in the law between the parties, candidates and other elements, to avoid a situation where a person did not donate to the party but circumvented the law by making his contribution to a club or a candidate.

SPENDING CEILING

Georg Sapiano (a former PN candidate) said current spending limits on candidates were inadequate. His view was that in current realities even a cap of €10,000 or €20,000 were unrealistic. Furthermore, who would enforce the limit and how?

Ms Coleiro Preco asked how the limit would be calculated.  Would it apply from the day when an election was called? Spending actually spending well before that.

Mr Caccopardo said the draft bill proposed no spending cap on political parties.

FUND RAISING

Prof Wain said a distinction had to be made between donations and fund-raising. At present, as far as he knew, parties were not subject to the laws on public fund-raising. He felt the new law should extend accountability to fund-raising by political parties.

Jason Micallef (former PL general secretary) asked if the committee would discuss what needs the political parties have before taking decisions on limits.

Dr Debono said the law should not be tailored to the bills of the political parties.

Mr Micallef said the committee should still know what sort of spending the parties made even in their day to day running over five years. Furthermore one should discuss what would happen if, for example, a supporter on death bequeathed an expensive property to a party? Would that be allowed.

Dr Herrera said it was important that the political parties could operate and were free to do so, but there should be transparency and no undue interference by donors on policy matters.

Dr Debono said the points by Mr Micallef needed to be discussed.

Karol Aquilina (PN) said there could be exemptions, such as donations to be used for policy development.

What about political parties which made use of government-owned or granted properties?

James Piscopo (chief executive of the PL) said all this boiled down to public credibility. The PL was the only one which published detailed accounts and discussed every line item with its members. The PL was comfortable with the accounting requirements which the proposed law was suggesting.

Dr Zammit Dimech said this was propaganda, with one giving an image which he wanted the people to see, without it being the real one.

The debate continues next month.

 

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us