Funding for politics

 

The Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, has been accused of trying to "buy" the next general election for Fianna Fail by seeking to raise the various expenditure thresholds laid down for Dail candidates in the Electoral Act of 1997. It is a political charge of some importance given the extreme voter cynicism that exists towards our democratic system. On-going revelations at the Flood and the Moriarty tribunals concerning the corrupt interface between business and politics should be warning enough for any Government that traditional standards and rules are no longer tenable. And yet, the message does not appear to have been embraced by Fianna Fail. Not only will spending limits be increased in the next general election if the Government has its way, but the financial relationship that links business and politics will persevere. In his defence, Mr Dempsey has argued that ail. the figures now proposed are realistic limits and would be accompanied by comprehensive proposals on the disclosure of political donations. It is not as simple as that. It is true that the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, recently proposed new mechanisms for dealing with political donations. And Mr Dempsey has indicated a desire to include them in his new Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000, when it is debated by the Dail. But they are not specified in the Bill at the moment. Neither is reference made in the legislation to proposals to prohibit foreign fund raising by Irish political parties, or to the expenditure of such monies here. It is all very unsatisfactory.

From what is known about the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, it is clear that Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats want to spend more money at election times while securing their links to the lucrative business sector. They want to augment whatever advantage they enjoy over their political competitors. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the proposal to ban corporate and other funding-raising activities by Irish political parties abroad, while retaining such funding here at home. Such a change would strike directly at Sinn Fein, which raises large amounts of money in the United States and Australia.

In proposing higher limits for political donations from individuals and businesses, the Minister for the Environment seems to anticipate heavy spending not just at election time, but between elections. A Labour Party Bill which sought to ban corporate funding, last May, proposed annual donations ceilings from any one source of £2,000 for a political party and £1,000 for an individual. Mr Dempsey has proposed limits of £20,000 and £5,000. At the same time, an individual would be able to spend between £20,000 and £30,000 in a general election, representing increases of between 40 and 50 per cent on existing statutory limits. The 1997 Electoral Act attempted to control political expenditure in response to growing public unease over corporate funding and to create something of a level playing pitch for the political parties. The changes now proposed by the Government run counter to the spirit of that Act and the broad inclination of the public. ail resumes in January. And, given the reliance of the Coalition Government for its Dail majority on Independent TDs who would be negatively affected by such provisions, there is no certainty that the Bill will pass. The Government parties should think again before proceeding with these measures.