Wanted: an impartial regulator for political party financing

Financing of Political Parties Act

Earlier this week, Parliament’s Standing Committee for the Consideration of Bills concluded its detailed discussion on the Bill regarding the financing of political parties. I was invited by the Committee to participate in the discussion in representation of Alternattiva Demokratika.

The Bill was improved as a result of the discussion. Around 34 clauses of the Bill were, in fact, amended, most amendments receiving unanimous consent.

However Alternattiva Demokratika’s major objection to the Bill was not addressed. When the White Paper on the regulation of the financing of political parties was published with government’s initial proposals, AD was already making the point that the choice of the Electoral Commission as the regulator was not a suitable option.

This lack of suitability clearly results from the very composition of the Electoral Commission. It is composed of nine people, four of whom are nominated by the Prime Minister, a further four are nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and the ninth person is the chairman of the Commission, who occupies that post in virtue of his having been appointed by the Prime Minister as head of The Electoral Office.

How can nominees of the parliamentary political parties regulate impartially the very parties nominating them as well as other political parties? Over the years, the Electoral Commission had the responsibility of receiving and vetting the returns submitted by candidates for elections (local, national and European) in which returns the candidates should have listed the donations they have received as well as their electoral expenditure. A cursory look at the newspapers published during past election campaigns would immediately provide ample proof that a number of such returns were – without any doubt – false declarations. Over-spending and undeclared financing was rampant, yet the Electoral Commission never took any action. Had it done so, I think that quite a number of our Members of Parliament in past legislatures or MEPs would have been unseated.

Yet the Hon. Minister Owen Bonnici keeps defending the government’s political choice of selecting the Electoral Commission as the regulator. In the government’s defence, he stated that the Electoral Commission is a constitutional body entrusted with the conduct of elections which, he said, it has carried out to the satisfaction of everyone.

Minister Owen Bonnici is incorrect. The Electoral Commission, in conducting elections, does not have any elbow room. Its discretion is substantially limited by electoral legislation which is very tight and precise. And whenever the Electoral Commission had any practical room for manoeuvre it made a mess of it.  In simple words, the Electoral Commission is constructed on partisan foundations. There are historical reasons for this but it is a basic truth which cannot be camouflaged.

While the Electoral Commission’s hands are generally tied up where electoral legislation is concerned, it is a different kettle of fish when dealing with the regulation of political parties and their financing. There will be issues and submissions that require interpretation and an eventual decision.

Already, way back in February 2014, Alternattiva Demokratika had proposed an alternative regulatory authority in the person of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, a post resulting from a Bill which was proposed by a Parliamentary Select Committee led by Mr Speaker Anġlu Farrugia. This Select Committee concluded its work and presented its final report on 24 March 2014, almost 16 months ago. For those who seek to act in good faith there was ample time for considering the proposals made. Yet the proposed Bill is still pending on the Parliamentary agenda.

In the Bill [Standards in Public Life Bill] the Select Committee proposed that the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life should be appointed, subject to obtaining the support of two-thirds of Members of Parliament. The election of the Commissioner would thus be on a par with that of the Ombudsman: the requirement that the support of two-thirds of Parliament has to be achieved would ensure that the selected person would, irrespective of his/her views be acceptable to a very wide-cross section of society.

This is the way forward initially proposed by Alternattiva Demokratika, but supported at a later stage by the PN.

The government never spoke against the AD proposal but only stated that it preferred the Electoral Commission as the regulatory authority as it was in a hurry. Minister Owen Bonnici said many a time that the GRECO (Council of Europe – Group of States Against Corruption) was breathing down his neck and as a result he had no time to spare for institution building!

This law will most probably be applied with effect from 1st January 2016. It is generally designed on the basis of a one-size-fits-all template that does not distinguish between political parties having a turnover measured in millions of euros and others which handle just a few thousands of euros per annum.

Political parties will be required to present annual audited accounts to the regulator, which will be published. They will also be required to submit a report on donations received over a calendar year. In addition, they will be required to publish the names of those donating in excess of €7,000 in a calendar year up to the permissible maximum of €25,000.

Alternattiva Demokratika will be examining the law in detail and taking legal advice before deciding whether to initiate legal action contesting the selection of the Electoral Commission as the regulator. The proposed law is generally a step in the right direction but, unfortunately, is tainted by the lack of identification of an appropriate regulator. It is indeed a pity that, when taking such a bold step forward, the government preferred the partisan path. In so doing it has diluted the efforts of all those who have worked hard in previous years to achieve this goal.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 19 July 2015

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