Coalition leaders want meeting on party funding

 

THE three Coalition leaders want to meet the Minister for Finance, Mr Quinn, this week to discuss the Exchequer implications of providing State funding for political parties in the next general election.

They deferred a decision on this proposal at a pre Cabinet meeting last Tuesday, as differences emerged between the three Government parties about the wisdom of proceeding with the Electoral Bill, 1994, within months of an election.

This Bill has been stalled at Committee Stage since the Supreme Court judgment in the McKenna case during the divorce referendum campaign last November.

The Attorney General's Office subsequently advised that the Government's proposal to provide £2.6 million in public funding to the parties, with total annual payments of £1 per vote would be unconstitutional.

Charged with the task of redrafting the legislation over recent months, the Minister for the Environment, Mr Howlin, is now recommending that the proposal should be dropped for the lifetime of this Government.

Democratic Left is still insisting, however, that the Government should honour its commitment to State funding. The current Fine Gael attitude to the Bill is more difficult to decipher.

It appears to be going through the motions of trying to frame a constitutional means of providing State funding to candidates and parties.

Labour's reluctance to proceed with the legislation at this stage seem to be dictated primarily by political considerations. It fears it will "take the hit" if taxpayers are asked to fund candidates so close to a general election.

DL, on the other hand, wants public funding of parties to be introduced. With only six members in the Dail, it does not qualify for group status and the benefits that brings in a generous leader's parliamentary allowance to fund the party.

Government attempts to redraft the Electoral Bill have run into increasing difficulties since the Supreme Court found that the use of public money to fund a campaign designed to influence voters in favour of a Yes vote on divorce interfered with the democratic process.

Programme managers considered new options to surmount the constitutional impediment to party funding during the Dail's summer recess.

These included the payment of £1 per vote to all candidates seeking election, irrespective of their success rate, and the payment of extra monies through the current leaders' allowances system.

But, the legality of the leaders' allowance system itself is now being questioned since it is arbitrary, with no equality of treatment between parties. It is based on a seat threshold with a weighting towards Opposition parties. The problem was referred back to the Coalition leaders.

If the Government does not find some suitable mechanism to fund the parties in the next election; it seems certain, at this stage, that the provisions of the Electoral Bill placing a ceiling on party, individual and constituency expenditure and forcing the disclosure of donations will also fall.