Sociologist from Malta

Friday, January 08, 2010

Financing political parties

Michael Briguglio

The Times, 8th January 2010

Sometimes, in politics, issues are purposely not discussed to prevent change. This is what happened in the case of the so-called Greco report.

A few weeks ago, the Council of Europe's Group of States against Corruption (Greco) published a report on the financing of political parties in Malta. While the report did feature in some of Malta's media, including The Times, it has since quietly disappeared from the public sphere. And this suits perfectly the interests of the Nationalist and Labour parties. Why?

Well, the Greco report recommends what many, including the Greens, have been saying for years. In a nutshell, it recommends that political parties should declare donations above certain amounts and also state the identity of donors. Besides, donations from unknown sources should be banned and political parties should keep proper accounting and auditing systems. The report also expresses concern that only the PN and the PL are represented in Malta's Select Committee dealing with such a matter.

As things stand, there is a free-for-all system as regards donations to political parties and it is more than obvious that this has resulted in a system of political money laundering. In this case, some are more equal than others in their influence on political parties and there is no accounting system to trace this. Along the same lines, the declarations' system of candidates in general, European and local elections have become a national farce. It is more than obvious that certain candidates exceed the legal expenditure threshold, yet this practice remains in place, one election after the other!

Some business interests seem to have undue influence over the Nationalist Administration and, judging by Labour's selective silence on certain decisions by the government, some will probably be "in power" even if Labour is in government.
To be fair, both the PN and the PL have spoken about the need to reform the system of party financing but nothing concrete has been done so far, indicating that it suits them to keep the status quo. Indeed, talk is cheap.

Their lethargy seems to show they are not ready to go beyond pre-election rhetoric. Why would they do so when both parties receive €100,000 each annually from the state and hundreds of thousands of euros each from fundraising events and who knows what else? Perhaps both parties can publish a list of donors in such events, together with a list of "invisible" donors!

Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party had submitted concrete proposals to the Speaker of the House as to how party financing can be reformed in a fair manner. In a nutshell, we believe in the introduction of strict rules on donations, coupled with the state financing of parties.

As regards the former, we believe that donations in excess of €5,000 should be declared by political parties and those over €40,000 should be made illegal. In the case of state financing of political parties, we suggested that the state should give all political parties €3 for every vote obtained on a national level, during a general or a European election.

State financing provides transparency and can be coupled with strict regulations such as forcing political parties to have audited accounts. Besides, it is wholly unfair that only large political parties benefit from state funds as is happening now. In such a situation, small parties, like AD, are in a lose-lose situation. We are not considered to be a political party for state financing purposes, yet we cannot apply for funds that are given to voluntary organisations either! Hence, AD is unfairly disadvantaged, even though we have the support of thousands of voters.

State financing of political parties has been tried and tested in established democracies within the European Union. Indeed, the Greco report, in line with a recommendation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Financing of Political Parties, declares that the state should give funds to political parties "in ratio to the political support which the parties enjoy, evaluated on objective criteria such as the number of votes cast or the number of parliamentary seats won, and on the other hand enable new parties to enter the political arena and to compete under fair conditions with the more well established parties".

Finally, the Greco report highlights that state financing of political parties "cannot only be limited to those parties represented in Parliament but should rather be extended to political bodies representing a significant section of the electorate and presenting candidates for election".

As things stand, what happens in Malta is miles away from such a system and seems to be tailor-made for the perpetuation of a two-party oligopoly and political clientelism. No wonder the PN and the PL have remained dead silent on the Greco report!

Indeed, we all hear about the favours given by certain candidates before elections and we all see how certain interests have undue influence on the government. Then we complain that decisions are not fair and transparent. International scientific surveys show that the Maltese people are becoming increasingly concerned with corruption. But what do we expect given our own brand of party financing?

Mr Briguglio is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.

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