Howlin announces measures to fund politics and cap election spending

 

NEW proposals to fund politics and to make the disclosure of all significant financial contributions mandatory were approved by the Government yesterday

In a move designed to overcome the unease created by the Dunnes Stores controversy, the Minister for the Environment, Mr Howlin, announced a three stranded scheme to partially fund election campaigns, the day to day running of political parties and revised annual allowances to party leaders.

Some of the new proposals will be drafted as amendments to the Electoral Bill 1994, which has been stalled in committee since the McKenna case on the divorce referendum campaign last year.

Mr Howlin said yesterday that the new amendments, which will be considered by the Dail Committee on Finance and General Affairs early next year, arose from a detailed study of the Supreme Court judgments in the McKenna case. They were designed to meet the emphasis in the judgments on equality of political rights, the concept of equality in the political process generally and the right to a fair democratic process.

A cap will be placed on election expenditure under the new arrangements, which provide for a limit of £18,000 on a candidate's expenditure at a Dail election. In the case of a political party, an appropriate proportion of the costs incurred by the party at national level will be included in calculating the candidate's expenses. It will be a matter for the parties themselves to decide in advance of an election what proportion of the £18,000 limit should be reserved to allow for spending by the party nationally.

Dail election candidates who secure at least one quarter of the quota irrespective of their status or party - will be entitled to recoup actual election expenditure up to £5,000. This proposal will cost taxpayers about £1.5 million after each general election.

In the second strand of the proposals, funding will be available each year, beginning after the next general election, to registered political parties who obtained at least 2 per cent of total first preference votes at the election, and whether or not any candidate of the party is elected.

The total amount available each year will be £1 million, with payments to individual parties based on their percentage of total first preference votes.

Subject to guidelines to be prepared by the Public Offices Commission, established under the Ethics in Public Office Act, this funding may be used for general administrative, research and policy making expenses, including the promotion of participation by women and young persons in political activity. Use for electoral purposes will be prohibited.

An audited statement of the purposes for which the funds were applied will have to be supplied to the commission at the end of each year.

The Minister for Finance, Mr Quinn, will announce separate proposals for a revision of the annual allowances paid to party leaders, including an extension of the system to all parties represented in the Dail and to non party members of the Dail.

The limits already proposed in the Electoral Bill 1994, requiring the disclosure of donations of more than £4,000 to parties and £500 to individual members and candidates will stand.

The Fianna Fail spokesman on the Environment, Mr Noel Dempsey, welcomed the fact that at last they had some proposals. The party could not make its position fully known until it had full details. It had agreed in the past with the principle of some State funding, he said, and it was also in favour of the principle of disclosure.

"Whatever scheme is brought forward is going to have to be practical and workable", Mr Dempsey added.

Ms Mairin Quill, spokeswoman for the Progressive Democrats, said they did not think that taxpayers should be required to meet the costs of party election campaigns. However, they did favour the provision of public funding to political parties for policy development, research back up and for other parliamentary activities.

The crisis which had arisen, Ms Quill stated, was not a crisis of political funding. If individual politicians were paid to renovate their homes, or if money was paid into offshore accounts, or if questionable payments were made to public officials, that had nothing to do with funding of the democratic system.

Last night Muintir na Tire objected to the proposals, saying they were unfair to voluntary bodies which had to fund themselves. However, Mr Jim Quigley, Muintir na Tire president, said it agreed in principle with funding political parties, provided that national voluntary organisations also received meaningful funding.