It'll be interesting to see whether the idea of full public disclosure of the political fundraising gains any traction, either with the public or the parties.
But I also wouldn't allow this issue to confuse the ethical problems currently engulfing the PLP, and specifically Dr. Brown, over the 'pay for play' allegations.
We're all grown-ups here, and just like the BHC investigation revealed Cabinet level behaviour that was clearly wrong but not illegal, this is no different. You don't need laws in place to know what is and is not appropriate.
The 'pay for play' issue involves a private luncheon for exclusively current and potential pension fund managers with a sitting Cabinet Minister (see Trevor Moniz's comments today). To make it worse, the 'donations' were payable to a politician personally rather than a party account, bracketed "PLP" on the cheques notwithstanding - it is meaningless. That reeks.
There is no reason to just accept the explanation that Dr. Brown was raising for his constituency campaign. It is just as likely that those went into his personal account, based on the name on the cheque, as campaign fundraising.
But moving past that for now...
Personally I'm with the Editor of RG and Trevor Moniz - in full support of campaign finance disclosure. I'm also fully aware that it will curtail the amount of money raised by the parties, which on the whole is probably not a terrible thing, and that experiences in other countries, like the US, Canada, the UK shows that for every law is a loophole (just look at the 527 industry that grew out of the McCain-Feingold financen law in the US last year).
And it's worth pointing out that political fund-raising money is not in and of itself a bad thing. Political parties can't operate without funds. The issue that needs addressing is about creating transparency so that the public can reach their own conclusions on whether people are buying access and gaining favours.
Bermuda's community is very small and there is an increased sensitivity to things like political donations. Some donors might shy away for entirely legitimate reasons knowing that their name would be made public, our political environment can be hostile.
However, some individuals and business are clearly trying to buy influence, and some MPs appear willing to be bought, and that needs tackling.
This isn't however a simple question, there are many levels to this and ways to address the issue. Some of the considerations would include:
- whether to cap individual/corporate contributions?
- corporate vs personal donations?
- whether to prevent foreign nationals and corporations from donating?
- whether to allow fundraising from non-Bermudian residents (they are affected after all)?
- full reporting of total amounts raised, and on what timeable?
- reporting of amounts (only over a certain level or every donation regardless of size)?
- reporting of the central organisations fundraising vs individual candidates (who do raise money separately)
- do membership fees equal a disclosed donation?
- should we forget campaign finance disclosure and just implement public funding of the parties? (ie. each party gets x amount of tax dollars to run their campaign on - there's potentially some constitutional or legal issues that could come into play here - any lawyers around?)
Those are just a few that spring to mind.
We also need to be wary of creating a new bureaucracy, and putting onerous reporting on the parties will require them to raise more money, in order to support the regulatory issues. They don't have a lot of resources as it is and will be hard pressed to hire full-time compliance officers.
Bermuda also, particularly of late, doesn't have a great track record on the independence of committees such as the Broadcast Commission, the Pensions Committee etc..
Before delving into some misconceptions though, just a quick comment on something that wouldn't be addressed by campaign finance disclosure: the misuse of the civil service/public funds for political purposes.
Just as important as campaign finance reform is the clear politicisation of the civil service that is going on, and the use of Government Information Services for partisan political purposes by the PLP, or any future government for that matter.
There is inevitably some overlap in Government Information Services for example, but things like the recent focus groups; the advertorial the PLP placed in Time shortly after the 98 election (which was deemed inappropriate but that the PLP never reimbursed the taxpayers for, as instructed); and the broadcast rule changes.
A governing party that abuses the independence of the civil service is both misusing public funds as well as taking an undisclosed donation in kind, that won't be reported. Currently, this is going on and creates an uneven playing field. We need to get resolution on that issue as well.
But back on to campaign finance:
Probably the biggest misconception is that both parties, and maybe more likely the UBP, are awash in money. Obviously the parties function through a combination of volunteerism and donations, but the amounts of cash support are far less that people think. Both parties struggle to raise money, particularly between elections, and it isn't cheap to run a decent campaign.
Public disclosure of donations would certainly discourage some donors from contributing, and I think you can argue both sides of the pros and cons of that. Ultimately however, I would tend to come down on the side of full disclosure.
But again, there are already ethical standards in place, such as Codes of Conduct and the Register of Interest that are being largely ignored: again in the spotlight, Dr. Brown didn't declare a real estate transaction with the BHC and according to Trevor Moniz didn't declare the pensions luncheon, nor did Renee Webb declare her broking of Government pensions to a company she was a shareholder in (although she did declare her shareholding interest).
We can put as many regulations in place as we can dream up, but if they're going to be ignored and there is no enforcement, then what's the point?
The idealist in me though wonders why we can't elect more decent, ethical people into politics, and stop accepting these abuses of power and position as inevitable. They're not ok and we have to take a stand against them.
I'll have much more to say on this over the coming days and weeks and would be interested in any ideas and feedback you might have.