Few could argue that the regime of political finance has not had an impact on Irish politics and policy. It was the famous Tent at Ballybrit each year which symbolised the symbiotic relationship between Fianna Fáil and the property industry. Thanks to Elaine Byrne we know that the property industry accounted for more donations than ay other group. We know that the industry lobbied hard and we know it got its way. We even have an admission from government that its policies of providing tax breaks to the wealthy to facilitate more building in a building boom encouraged greater speculation, fuelled the boom and in turn made the crash so painful.
There is not as much agreement on what should be done. One side of the argument, led perhaps by Fintan O’Toole and the Irish Times, argues that all private funding should be ended because it encourages political corruption. The fact that the current regime does not allow much transparency shows it is not working. The other side led perhaps by Des O’Malley argues that without the possibility of private funding setting up a new party will be next to impossible because state funding is only given on the basis of previous election results. This will protect the status quo and prevent innovation in the party system and politics.
Both sides are reasonable and highlight problems with each ‘extreme’. We want a competitive party system so any funding regime that prevents new entrants is undesirable. We don’t want private individuals to be able to buy elections in a sort of ‘chequebook democracy’. The current regime seems to be a middle ground, part state funding and part private funding where large donations are disclosed. But it is not working when the existing parties are very well funded by the state and private sources, but we don’t see who is giving.
Perhaps we should look at this problem from a different angle. Why not look at and control the way in which parties can spend money. What do we want our parties to do and use their resources on? Posters? No, posters reduce arguments to facile slogans (think of the Cóir posters in the last referendums) or just make one person’s face so ubiquitous that everyone will recognise her – so let’s ban them. Billboard advertising? Ditto. Market research? So that the party can pick the candidate that might win, or push the policy that plays best with the public? This is hardly desirable – let’s ban that. Media outlets can do these, and then all candidates/ parties have access to this information. These media outlets could also facilitate candidate debates in constituencies. We might also want to rethink the rules (or the interpretation of the rules)
What do we want parties/ parliamentarians to do? We’d like if they have well thought out policies, and some capacity to do research. Well rather than spend money giving TDs parliamentary assistants, most of whom (though not all) are constituency gofers there could be a beefed up research service in the Dáil. We might even think about giving some civil service support to the opposition – a Department for the Opposition? One immediate change that would have enabled the formation of a party like the PDs would be to link state funding with current Dáil representation and not past electoral performance.
Obviously a new party without parliamentary representation could not benefit from these measures. So how do we allow new political parties get to a position where they can compete in elections? Most new parties have free services available – even the Socialist Workers’ Party can count on its foot soldiers to spread the word and intellectuals for research and policy direction. New parties need money for buildings and staff – this is probably the single largest expense, so we need to allow some funding. Could we have a register of party members and only allow party members (who must be residents of the state and only members of one party) to donate, making all donations public regardless of size?
Limiting the amount parties are allowed spend might solve the problem, by reducing the amount of money a new party would need to compete in an election, and ensuring that parties only spend money on those things we want them to do. It should make money less of an issue in Irish politics.