Trying to squeeze out the small political parties?

Financing of Political Parties ActStandards in Public Life Bill

 

Legislation regulating the financing of political parties in Malta is long overdue. Alternattiva Demokratika has been harping on about this subject since its foundation in 1989 and has referred  to it in all the general election campaigns since.

Former MP Franco Debono has been a driving force over the last few years in ensuring that the financing of political parties has been an item retained on the national agenda.

The Parliamentary Committee for the consideration of Bills is currently examining the Financing of Political Parties Bill in detail. On behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika, I had the opportunity to be present at a number of sittings and also participated in the ensuing discussion after being invited to do so by the Parliamentary Committee.

While the general thrust of the Bill is reasonable, it contains three basic mistakes which, if unchecked, will impact the whole regulatory process. The first is over-regulation. The second is the retention of absolute control directly in the hands of representatives of the Parliamentary political parties which, in turn, leads to the third fault- this being a one-size-fits-all template.

I will take each in turn.

The over-regulating aspect of the Bill has been watered down, as  Minister Owen Bonnici was very flexible when faced with this criticism. He accepted various amendments to the Bill, scaling down  various  provisions relating to the proposed regulation of political parties.

The government is proposing that the regulating authority on party political financing should be the Electoral Commission. It attempts to justify its stance by pointing out  that the General Elections Act already assigns responsibility to the Electoral Commission to receive, and where necessary vet, the expenses made and donations received by candidates in general, local and European elections in Malta. However, Minister Owen Bonnici, who is piloting the Bill,  was not in a position to explain why the Electoral Commission had never taken any action when faced with a blatant disregard for the rules by candidates in past elections.

The alternative proposal, initially piloted by Alternattiva Demokratika but subsequently also taken up by the PN Opposition, would see the regulatory authority on political party financing vested in the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. This Commissioner would be a  Parliamentary Official, to be elected subject to the support of two-thirds of Members of Parliament when the Standards in Public Life Bill, currently pending on Parliament’s agenda, is approved. Enjoying the support of two-thirds of MPs would signify that the person selected would enjoy widespread support and consequently his or her moral authority would be substantial and effective.

During the discussion Minister Owen Bonnici declared that the Council of Europe’s GRECO (Group of States Against Corruption) was  breathing down his neck  and consequently the government could not afford to await alternative institution building.

A major stumbling block is the composition of the Electoral Commission itself. This is determined in the Constitution, with four of its members being nominated by the Prime Minister and  another four members  being nominated by the Leader of the Opposition. The chairman of the Electoral Commission is always a civil servant nominated by the Prime Minister. This signifies that the parliamentary political parties, through their absolute control of the Electoral Commission, end up regulating themselves through their nominees. But what is even worse is the fact that they also control the regulatory process for all other political parties which may consider registering.

It seems that this rigid control of the regulatory process by the parliamentary political parties is not enough.  To be sure of tightening even further the resulting control, the Financing of Political Parties Bill also adopts a one-size fits-all template. It does this by ignoring reality and makes no distinction between the political parties having seven-digit turnover and the rest. Nor does it distinguish between the political parties run by full-time professionals paid for their services, at least in part through funds arising from donations, and political parties run by volunteers with an annual turnover averaging €10,000. The one-size-fits-all approach is, however, not extended to state financing. For the past 20 years, both the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party parliamentary groups have been receiving €100,000 in public funds annually.

The proposed  rigid reporting and auditing requirements that may be reasonable for political parties with seven-digit budgets are certainly quite unreasonable for a political party such as Alternattiva Demokratika, run by volunteers on a shoestring budget which averages €10,000 annually.

The limited administrative capacity of small parties is not factored in the Bill under consideration.

The end result may well be that there will be considerable administrative difficulties for political parties not presently in parliament to register as political parties once the Bill under discussion becomes law. (It has to be borne in mind that only political parties registered in terms of an eventual   Financing of Political Parties Act will be able to present candidates in all elections in Malta. All other candidates will be considered as independent candidates and grouped together at the lower part of the ballot paper.)

Mixed messages have come through during the debate on this Bill. Unfortunately, however, the message at these final stages is that there is also a clear but undeclared objective of the Financing of Political Parties Bill– to squeeze out the small political parties.

In the coming months we will see whether this undeclared objective can be overcome.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday, 5 July 2015

 

 

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Voting at the Hospitals and Retirement Homes: 5. Infringement of data protection legislation

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As  AD Deputy Chairman together with Prof Arnold Cassola on Monday 17 December 2012 I had a meeting with the Chief Electoral Commissioner relative to the amendments to the General Elections Act as applicable to state hospitals and state run retirement homes.

AD is worried that the said amendments require that the administrators of state hospitals as well as state run old people’s homes to submit regular updated list of patients and residents to the political parties for the purposes of monitoring the electoral process.

This information being made available permits the political parties not only to know who has been admitted to state run hospitals and retirement homes on a daily basis for practically two whole two months, but also to indirectly know what particular condition or ailment patients in hospitals are suffering from.

In a democratic country which gives value to the right to privacy this is totally unacceptable.

In view of this AD has requested the Data Protection Commissioner to investigate the manner in which the electoral process will invade the privacy of patients in state hospitals and residents in retirement homes when the list of patients/residents is provided to the political parties. The Data Protection Commissioner was requested to provide remedies ensuring that the provisions of the Data Protection Act are observed.

Voting at the Hospitals and Retirement Homes: (4) Voting documents & voters choices

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The voting documents shall be delivered personally to residents in retirement homes. The same procedure shall apply to patients in hospitals unless they would have been delivered to them prior to admittance.

The residents/patients may opt to retain possession of the voting document or else they may opt to give it to the Chairman of the sub-committee for safekeeping. The Chairman of the sub-committe will return the voting document on the day fixed for voting or when so requested by the voter.

Voters in retirement homes/hospitals have the option to chose the manner in which they are to proceed to the polling station. They may opt to proceed on their own or else they may opt to proceed with the assistence of members of the staff or with members of their family. The voters are expected to make a choice. There is no provision in the law for the residents/patients to inform the authorities that they ought to mind their own business through the use of appropriate language.

The sub-committee is obliged in terms of subarticle 83(2) of the Act to ascertain the manner in which voters intend to proceed to vote and thereafter to inform the delegates of the political parties of the options chosen. It is expected that once voters decide on the selected option in which they are to proceed to vote they do not change their mind unless they have special permission from the sub-committee as is provided in subarticle 83(7) of the Act!

A medical consultant having in his care any voter in a hospital or retirement home may draw attention to any dangers which may result if a voter is moved for the purposes of  being taken to vote. His advice may however be ignored by the voter or his next of kin where applicable.

Voters who opt to be accompanied by members of staff shall be so accompanied by staff forming a pool nominated by the political parties. If there are not sufficient members of staff the Electoral Commission at the request of the political parties must ensure that sufficent additional personnel are transferred  as required!

On the day fixed for voting access to retirement homes/hospitals shall be restricted.  Such access shall be limited to members of the sub-committee, members of staff and those relatives authorised to accompany voters to vote.

All those accomanying voters shall only accompany them as far as the door of the polling booth.

to be continued : tomorrow (5) Infringement of data protection legislation

Voting at the Hospitals and Retirement Homes: (3) Political Parties and the lists of patients/residents

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So far, in parts 1 and 2 we have identified that twenty four hours after the publication of the writ establishing the date of the general elections the Electoral Commission shall form a sub-committee, chaired by a Commissioner together with a representative of each of the political parties. The Electoral Commission shall delegate the running of the general election  in retirement homes and hospitals to this sub-committee. The duties of this sub-committee are wide ranging.

The sub-committee shall receive from the administration of the Hospitals/Retirement homes lists of patients/residents. These shall be submitted to the sub-committee within three days from the publication fo the writ identifying the general election date.  In addition a list of all staff expected to be on duty up to the day following election day shall be furnished by the administrators to the sub-committee.

The list of residents in retirement homes shall include names, ID card numbers, last known address, age, ward number, name and address of next of kin and the electoral district where the resident is entitled to vote.

The details of all patients in hospitals is also to be submitted. It shall include names, ID card number, last kniown address, ward number, name and address of next of kin. This list is to be updated daily until the day preceeding the election.

Full details of staff at both retirement homes and hospitals will also be furnished by the administrator: the information shall include name, ID card number, grade, address, as well as their expected working hours up to the day after the election .

The sub-committee shall supply to the political parties the lists containing the information on residents, patients and staff. The information supplied to the political parties shall be updated regularly.

Staff members in hospitals and retirement homes are expressly prohibited from engaging in propaganda for any political party or candidate. Severe penalties shall apply if they ignore this: general interdiction for a period of 10 years.

The political parties will thus be informed in detail of who the residents in retirement homes as well as hospital patients are, their last known residence as well as details as to their next of kin. It is to be pointed out that in respect of hospital patients information as to the ward where the patient is receiving treatment will also be communicated to the political parties thereby indirectly informing them of what’s wrong with the voter’s health.

to be continued : tomorrow (4) Voting documents & voters choices

Voting at the Hospitals and Retirement Homes: (2) The draconian powers of the sub-committee

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In part 1 we identified that twenty four hours after the publication of the writ establishing the date of the general elections the Electoral Commission shall form a sub-committee, chaired by a Commissioner together with a representative of each of the political parties. The Electoral Commission shall delegate the running of the general election  in retirement homes and hospitals to this sub-committee.

The sub-committee has 4 basic duties established in subarticle 81(2) of the General Elections Act. These duties are listed as follows:

  1. that no undue pressure is bought to bear on voters in retirement homes and hospitals,
  2. that proper and adequate facilities are given to all political parties to canvas voters
  3. that adequate arrangements for voting are made in view of the special needs of such voters
  4. that no political party enjoys an unfair advantage.

The sub-committee in terms of subarticle 81(3) of the Act is given the authority to ensure that

  1. immediate steps are taken to remove and substitute members of staff gravely suspected to have attempted to influence voters
  2. arrangements are made for receipt/delivery of propaganda material and for canvassing dring visiting hours by candidates and political parties contesting that electoral division
  3. complaints from political parties/candidates are speedily investigated and rectified when found to be justified.

These dragonian powers were agreed to unanimously by Parliament as they were agreed to by the PN and the PL. It is not known whether Trade Unions were consulted. Most probably they were not.

to be continued : tomorrow (3) Political Parties and the lists of patients/residents

Voting at the Hospitals and Retirement Homes: (1) Introduction

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On Monday morning together with Professor Arnold Cassola on behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika I had a meeting with the Chief Electoral Commissioner who was accompanied by the Commission’s Secretary. The point at issue were recent amendments to the General Elections Act (through Act XIV of 2012) which set out the framework for the running of general elections in retirement homes and Hospitals.

Retirement homes to which the amendments apply must have at least fifty resident voters and must be run by the state. This means that only one retirement home, St Vincent de Paul  Residence, is targeted. Ther retirement homes which though owned by the state are run by the private sector (Zejtun and Mellieħa homes) are excluded.

Likewise when it comes to the hospitals it will be the state hospitals which will be subject to the recent amendments. These are four in number, namely Mater Dei Hospital, Karen Grech Hospital, Mount Carmel Hospital and the Gozo General Hospital.

Twenty four hours after the publication of the writ establishing the date of the general elections the Electoral Commission shall form a sub-committee which shall be chaired by a Commissioner together with a representative of each of the political parties. Alternattiva Demokratika shall participate in this sub-committee and I shall be its representative.

In terms of these latest amendments to the General Elections Act the Electoral Commission shall delegate to the above-mentioned sub-committee the running of the general election  in retirement homes and hospitals.

to be continued : tomorrow (2) The draconian powers of the sub-committee