Another PR exercise at reforms

OCTOBER 11 — Having covered five general elections, one comes to realise that there is a grey area when it comes to proper conduct involving money by political hopefuls and the parties behind them.

From crisp RM100 notes being pressed into my palm (which were immediately returned!) and media centres and computers sponsored by state agencies, I have witnessed numerous examples of questionable conduct which may be in breach of electoral laws or the very least, ethical practises.

Meanwhile, other goings-on take place outside the campaign period, way before Election Day. Which is why watchdog groups have long called for the need to monitor election funding and for politicians and political parties to come clean over the source of their funding and who their well-wishers are.

These calls have often fallen on deaf ears but last year, the government itself initiated attempts to reform political funding regulations with the establishment of the National Consultative Committee on Political Financing on August 14, 2015.

While proponents of good governance would like to think that the leadership caved in to demands from the Opposition and civil society, the more sceptical opine that these “reforms” are meant to curtail the flow of financial support to the Opposition by its ever-expanding support base.

Taking a look at the report of the committee which was headed by our “Minister of Reforms” Datuk Paul Low, the findings and recommendations go to the heart of public perception over political funding and the use of taxpayers’ money by the incumbent for political campaigning.

The National Consultative Committee aspires to a level playing field among political opponents saying in its report: “We believe political parties are vital components of healthy democracy and we want to make things easier for them to operate in a transparent and accountable environment.”

However, there’s a caveat: “Adopting our recommendations is only the first step. While we are able to recommend the rules for the game, actual improvements will only come when there is change of attitude and culture among political players and society at large.”

It even suggests that it is acceptable for politicians to receive donations in their personal accounts as long as they are subjected to certain rules, including that the account be a dedicated one for political donations.

One does wonder though about a recommendation to allow state funding of legitimate activities of elected Members of Parliament. This will be merely rubber stamping an already common practise and gives a blank cheque for the spending of public funds for political gain.

The use of government machinery, after all, is the biggest abuse by what is essentially a caretaker government but the incumbent uses this campaign period to have access to what is essentially a bottomless pit.

However, while the voices against this sort of abuse of funds was loud before the 12th general election, they have been quite muted since 2008, when some of these critics themselves formed the government of three states.

While the Committee acknowledges the multiple jurisdictions, it skirts around the fact that the EC still has the authority to caution candidates and parties and prevent the announcement of mega projects by the caretaker government during the campaign period.

To its credit, the Committee also proposed the Office of the Controller (of political donations and expenditure) although Recommendation 14 may evoke a sarcastic chuckle: “Donations to individual politicians must be robustly regulated.”

It continues to sound like an apologist for the EC; blaming multiple jurisdictions and constraints within the Election Act that makes the EC ineffective and the punching bag of the public.

But the EC does not do itself any favours when its chairmen past and present make statements that question their impartiality.

In the Committee’s comparative study of five countries — South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Mexico and Canada, four had political donations monitored by their respective Election authority, while Taiwan relies on its tax authority and local councils.

This raises questions over the recommendation of the appointment of the Controller — yet another oversight body when all it needs to do is expand the EC’s own powers. For instance, appointed by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong reporting to Parliament with a dotted line to the Council of Rulers — as opposed to the present arrangement that does not distinguish it from other civil service appointments.

It also suggests that a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Political Financing chaired by a member of the Opposition supervise the Controller.

Proposing the Political Donations and Expenditure Act will only add more confusion. Wouldn’t a better option be amending present enactments such as the Election Commission Act 1957 to give more definition and powers to the EC or the Election Offences Act 1954 to also govern political parties not just individual candidates?

Specific issues were not addressed such as the long perceived notion that the Ministry of Finance issues special draw licences to gaming firms for additional draws so monies raised from stub sales — and even the winnings — go to parties representing political interests.

The Committee also called for the ban on State-owned/linked businesses from making any form of political donations but what is stopping it from setting up companies and projects that act as funnels for political financing?

So will these recommendations which took over a year to put together by over 50 people and included one “lawatan sambil belajar” to London ever see the light of day or is this just another PR exercise by the ruling incumbent to demonstrate that it listens to the concerns of voters?

After all, it was just last year that the prime minister himself suggested that there was nothing wrong with Government Linked Companies making donations to political parties.

To know how far these recommendations will go, one just needs to ask: Whatever happened to the 22 recommendations by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform that was passed on April 3, 2012?

Among those recommendations that are yet to see the light of day?

The EC be given its own budget and be directly answerable to Parliament; setting up a service commission for the EC to appoint its own officers; and the enforcement of election laws carried out by EC enforcement officers to reduce the dependency on other authorities.

Another recommendation: a study be conducted on whether Parliament seats can be equally divided among Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak and the EC to come up with a formula in determining the number of voters in a constituency to ensure no huge disparities within a State.

Instead what do we have today? An EC that is still trying to shirk its image as a non-independent, partisan body through a proposal for an unprecedented butchering of constituency borders.

So while Paul Low and Co may have the best of intentions, unless there is a buy-in from the incumbents, the recommendations will remain just that. 

One cannot fault the sceptics for feeling that they will be disappointed again by another promising start. Right now, their money is on this report to end up like the 2012 one — collecting dust in some vault, waiting to be pulled out and rehashed for another PR gimmick in a few years.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.