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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Mill-Parlament għall-Qorti ?

Scales_of_justice

 

Wara ġimgħat ta’ diskussjoni kif ukoll bħala riżultat tat-text finali tal-Liġi dwar il-Finanzjament tal-Partiti Politiċi jidher li hemm il-possibilita ta’ żewġ kawżi. Dawn iservu biex tinfetaħ battalja legali dwar issues jaħarqu li fihom fil-Parlament ma kienx hemm qbil bejn il-Gvern u l-Opposizzjoni.

L-ewwel kawża possibli hi dik indikata fil-press conference ta’ Chris Said u Claudio Grech nhar it-Tlieta li għaddew. Din tirrigwarda l-għażla tal-Kummissjoni Elettorali bħala r-regolatur biex titħaddem il-liġi. Waqt id-diskussjoni fil-kumitat parlamentari li jikkunsidra l-liġijiet l-argumenti kontra l-proposta li l-Kummissjoni Elettorali tkun ir-regolatur kien wieħed ta’ preġudizzju fil-liġi innifisha. Dan il-preġudizzju hu wieħed doppju. Hu preġudizzju favur il-partiti fil-parlament (għax teskludi l-partiti l-oħra kollha) u huwa ukoll preġudizzju favur il-Gvern tal-ġurnata.

Il-komposizzjoni tal-Kummissjoni Elettorali għalhekk tagħmilha mhiex addatta biex tkun ir-regolatur, għax hu diffiċli tkun imparzjali.

Min-naħa l-oħra dwar it-tieni kawza ma jidhirlix li rajt kummenti fl-istampa. Din hi issue li tqajjmet fl-aħħar seduta tad-diskussjoni fil-kumitat parlamentari.

Meta konna qed niddiskutu d-definizzjoni ta’ “donazzjoni” qam il-punt li meta partit politiku jingħata servizz bi prezz ridott, it-tnaqqis fil-prezz għandu jitqies bħala donazzjoni. Mela jekk, per eżempju, partit politiku jikri mingħand il-privat binja li l-kera kummerċjali tagħha hi €100,000 fis-sena, imma jiftiehem biex iħallas €50,000 , id-differenza titqies bħala donazzjoni. F’dan il-kaz tkun donazzjoni illegali għax donazzjoni ma tistax taqbeż il-€25,000 fis-sena.

Allura qal Chris Said fil-kumitat parlamentari: x’inhi l-posizzjoni tal-Partit Laburista li għandu l-fuq minn tletin post (ankè l-PN għandu, imma numru inqas) propjeta’ tal-Gvern mikrijin għandu bis-soldi?

 

Owen Bonnici wieġeb li dawk il-propjetajiet f’idejn il-Partit Laburista  jiddependu minn arranġamenti li saru qabel daħlet fis-seħħ il-liġi dwar il-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi u allura l-argument ta’ Chris Said ma kienx wieħed tajjeb.  L-Avukat Ġenerali ta’ xi spjegazzjonijiet legali li fil-fehma tiegħi ma ikkonvinċew lil ħadd. Iktar kien qiesu tidwir mal-lewza. Chris Said ressaq emenda biex jiċċara dan il-punt. L-emenda m’għaddietx.

Jiena esprimejt l-opinjoni li l-emenda ta’ Chris Said ma kienx hemm bżonnha għax id-definizzjoni tal-kelma donazzjoni hi ċara ħafna fil-liġi u bl-ebda mod ma teskludi propjeta tal-Gvern. Fil-fatt id-definizzjoni ta’ donazzjoni tibda b’dawn il-kelmiet:

“donazzjoni” tfisser kull benefiċċju riċevut fir-rigward tal-attivitajiet jew il-funzjonijiet ta’ partit politiku, minn jew f’isem partit politiku, minn membru ta’ partit politiku, minn kandidat jew minn xi organizzazzjoni, kemm jekk tkun korporata jew le li fiha l-partit politiku, direttament jew indirettament jeżerċita amministrazzjoni effettiva u kontoll u għandha tinkludi, sakemm ma jiġix provdut mod ieħor………….:”

 

Dawn huma tnejn mill-affarijiet li l-liġi dwar il-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi ma tikkunsidrax sewwa. Ħasra kbira. Għax l-isforz kbir li sar minn bosta seta ta’ riżultati aħjar.

Pass kbir il-quddiem

Financing of Political Parties Act

Fil-Parlament il-bieraħ fil-għaxija ġiet fi tmiemha d-diskussjoni dwar il-liġi dwar il-Finanzjament tal-Partiti. Dan sar fil-kumitat permanenti li jikkunsidra l-liġijiet.

F’isem Alternattiva Demokratika jiena kont mistieden nieħu sehem f’din id-diskussjoni li ilha sejra diversi ġimgħat. F’din id-diskussjoni l-abbozz ta’ liġi ġie analizzat kelma kelma. Forsi virgola, virgola ukoll.

Għalkemm hemm affarijiet fil-liġi li setgħu saru aħjar, inkluż uħud li għal Alternattiva Demokratika m’humiex aċċettabbli, fi tmiem id-diskussjoni l-abbozz ta’ liġi  xorta hu wieħed aħjar milli kif kien imfassal oriġinalment.

L-oġġezzjoni prinċipali ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika hija dwar ir-regolatur. Jiġifieri dwar min ser ikollu l-awtorità li jara li l-liġi taħdem sewwa u li tkun osservata. Sa mill-bidu nett tad-diskussjoni l-Gvern ippropona li din l-awtorità regolatorja tkun il-Kummissjoni Elettorali.

L-oġġezzjoni ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika hi ibbażata fuq il-mod kif inhi magħmula l-Kummissjoni Elettorali. Din fiha 9 membri. Erba’ minnhom jaħtarhom il-Prim Ministru. Erba’ oħra jaħtarhom il-Kap tal-Opposizzjoni. Id-disa’ membru jaħtru l-Gvern tal-ġurnata għax ikun l-impjegat tal-Gvern li jmexxi x-xogħol amministrattiv kollu tal-Kummissjoni Elettorali. Il-Kummissjoni Elettorali, mela, hi magħmula minn rappreżentanti taż-żewġ partiti fil-Parlament.

Diġa hi problema kbira li ż-żewġ partiti fil-Parlament għandhom f’idejhom kontroll esklussiv tal-proċess kollu elettorali. Problema li tittaffa ftit bil-fatt li l-liġijiet elettorali jidħlu f’ħafna dettall u ankè jorbtu idejn il-Kummissjoni Elettorali kważi f’kollox.

Imma fil-każ tal-finanzjament tal-partiti ser ikun hemm ħafna affarijiet li ser ikunu jeħtieġu diskrezzjoni. Ser ikun hemm bżonn interpretazzjoni u ser ikun hemm bżonn deċiżjonijiet. Kulħadd hu tad-demm u l-laħam u wisq nibża’ li dan ser ikun rifless fid-deċiżjonijiet li jittieħdu.

Kien ikun ħafna aħjar kieku flok il-Kummissjoni Elettorali bħala awtorità regolatorja intagħżel il-Kummissarju għall-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika, kariga li ser tinħoloq permezz ta’ liġi oħra li għadha pendenti fuq l-aġenda Parlamentari. Min jokkupa din il-kariga ser jintagħżel mill-Parlament u biex jintagħżel ikun jeħtieġlu l-appoġġ ta’ mhux inqas minn żewġ terzi tal-Membri tal-Parlament. B’dan l-appoġġ, min ser jokkupa din il-kariga bil-fors li jkun persuna li tispira fiduċja u għaldaqstant tkun persuna aċċettabbli ukoll biex tkun l-awtorità li tieħu ħsieb l-amministrazzjoni tal-liġi li tirregola l-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi. Din kienet il-proposta ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika, li iktar tard kisbet ukoll l-appoġġ tal-Partit Nazzjonalista.

Il-Gvern qatt ma qal li ma jaqbilx mal-proposta ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika. Qal biss li kien jippreferi li l-awtorità regolatorja tkun il-Kummissjoni Elettorali għax kien mgħaġġel. Kellu l-GRECO tal-Kunsill tal-Ewropa (Group of States Against Corruption) jiġri warajh u għaldaqstant ma kellux ċans joqgħod jibni l-istrutturi (institution building)!

Il-liġi probabbilment li tibda taħdem ftit xhur oħra. Il-partiti ser ikunu meħtieġa li jkollhom il-kontijiet tagħhom ivverifikati (audited). Ser ikun meħtieġ ukoll li kull sena jippreżentaw rapport dwar id-donazzjonijiet li jirċievu. Iridu ukoll jippubblikaw l-ismijiet ta’ dawk il-persuni li  fuq perjodu ta’ tnax-il xahar ikunu taw donazzjoni lill-partiti politiċi bejn €7,000 u €25,000. Ħadd ma jista’ jagħti donazzjoni ta’ iktar minn €25,000 f’sena, u għaldaqstant l-ebda partit politiku ma jista’ jaċċetta donazzjoni ta’ din ix-xorta.

Il-kontrolli, rapporti, verifiki u poteri tal-Kummissjoni Elettorali li tinvestiga huma kollha intenzjonati li jkun assigurat li jkun hemm trasparenza sħiħa fil-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi u li din it-trasparenza twassal ukoll għal politka iktar nadifa.

Naslu? Issa naraw. Imma nemmen li bil-mod il-mod naslu ukoll.

Nemmen li bid-difetti b’kollox li fiha l-liġi din hi pass kbir il-quddiem.

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

 

 

Il-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi: Ħtieġa ta’ kunsens wiesa’

Hisilicon K3

L-editorjal tat-Times tal-lum jitkellem dwar is-sorveljanza tal-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi. Suġġett traskurat għal snin twal u li llum dwaru fil-Parlament għaddejja diskussjoni dwar abbozz ta’ liġi. Dwar dan l-abbozz, u l-fatt li wasalna sa hawn, kif diġà għedt drabi oħra, għandu mertu kemm Franco Debono kif ukoll il-Gvern tal-lum.

Alternattiva Demokratika ilha ukoll is-snin titkellem dwar il-materja. Dan għamlitu sa mill-ewwel programm elettorali tagħha fl-elezzjoni ġenerali tal-1992, l-ewwel darba li kkontestat elezzjoni ġenerali. Bħala AD ppubblikajna żewġ dokumenti dwar il-proposti li għandu quddiemu llum il-Parlament. L-ewwel wieħed kien dokument bir-reazzjonijiet ta’ AD għall-White Paper. Sussegwentement ħejjejna u ppubblikajna wkoll dokument bi tweġiba għall-proposti kif dettaljati fl-abbozz ta’ liġi.

Fil-prinċipju l-abbozz ta’ liġi ppreżentat hu tajjeb imma jirrikjedi diversi emendi.

Preżentament, fil-fatt, l-abbozz qiegħed jiġi diskuss fil-Kumitat Parlamentari dwar il-Liġijiet. Jiena qed nieħu sehem f’din id-diskussjoni u dan għax intlaqgħet it-talba ta’ AD għal parteċipazzjoni f’din id-diskussjoni u ġejt mistieden biex inkun nista’ nieħu sehem fiha.

Id-diskussjoni fil-Kumitat Parlamentari issa waslet bejn wieħed u ieħor sa nofs l-abbozz tal-liġi u nista’ ngħid li f’ħafna każi l-abbozz ġie mtejjeb billi ġew ikkunsidrati bis-serjetà d-diversi proposti li saru. Dan iżda ma sarx għall-iktar punt importanti tal-liġi. Il-Gvern, permezz tal-Ministru Owen Bonnici, ma jridx jiċċaqlaq mill-proposta li l-awtorità li tirregola l-finanzjament tal-partiti politiċi tkun il-Kummissjoni Elettorali.

Alternattiva Demokratika ilha xhur twal issa li għamlet il-proposta li flok il-Kummissjoni Elettorali l-awtorità regolatorja għandha tkun f’idejn il-Kummissarju tal-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika, uffiċjal parlamentari li dwaru hemm abbozz ta’ liġi pendenti fuq l-aġenda parlamentari. Hu propost f’dan l-abbozz li dan l-uffiċjal jinħatar bil-kunsens ta’ żewġ terzi tal-membri parlamentari. B’hekk ikun hemm kunsens wiesa’ fuq il-persuna li tinħatar li bla dubju taġixxi lil hinn mill-influwenza tal-partiti politiċi kollha.

Kien għalhekk ta’ sodisfazzjon li sussegwentment anke l-Partit Nazzjonalista adotta l-istess pożizzjoni u insista fuq dan waqt id-diskussjoni fil-Parlament.

Imma l-Gvern ma jaqbilx ma’ dan għal żewġ raġunijiet. L-ewwel qed jgħid li l-Kummissjoni Elettorali hi struttura eżistenti u għalhekk għax hu mgħaġġel biex iħaddem il-liġi l-ġdida [għax qed jiġri warajh il-GRECO mill-Kunsill tal-Ewropa: GRECO = Group of States Against Corruption] jippreferi jagħmel użu mill-Kummissjoni Elettorali. It-tieni, il-Gvern qed jgħid li l-Kummissjoni Elettorali hi korp kostituzzjonali li diġà in parti għandu responsabbiltajiet dwar il-finanzjament tal-politika u dan għax “suppost” li diġà jissorvelja l-infiq tal-kandidati fl-elezzjonijiet diversi.

Sfortunatement il-Gvern qed jinjora l-fatt li kif komposta l-Kummissjoni Elettorali, għal raġunijiet storiċi, hi dominata minn rappreżentanza tal-partiti politiċi fil-parlament [4 mill-PN, 4 mill-PL u Chairman miċ-Ċivil magħżul mill-Gvern tal-ġurnata]. Dan ifisser li l-partiti politiċi fil-parlament għandhom aċċess għall-informazzjoni fuq il-partiti l-oħra li mhumiex u per konsegwenza kontroll sħiħ fuq il-proċess kollu.

Jagħmel tajjeb il-Gvern kieku jfittex kunsens anke fuq dan il-punt, kif wara kollox għamel b’suċċess fuq partijiet oħra tal-liġi.

ippubblikat fuq iNews l-Erbgħa 1 ta’ Lulju 2015