Party finance to enable democracy

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.

6 thoughts on “Party finance to enable democracy

  1. As we know from comparative research, it is impossible to get this right. Any set of rules we might come up with can ultimately be flouted. I’m not sure if the solution you suggest of limiting campaign activities rather than addressing financial expenditure would be much better. Japan shows how crazy campaign restrictions can become — and this is hardly a paragon of a case to want to emulate.

    To my mind, the best we could hope to aim for would be clear and unequivocal undertakings by each of the parties that they will do their utmost to meet the highest standards — perhaps signing up to something like the NDI’s ‘minimum standards’. For instance, all parties should publish properly audited annual accounts; all TDs and Senators should have on their websites fully audited accounts, including pdfs of each and every donation they receive no matter how small. Perhaps by forcing full transparency we can help to keep things a bit cleaner.

  2. There may be arguments that we should look at how money is spent but as David says these might be tricky. For example I’m not sure I understand why media outlets would do market research and facilitate debate unless it led to increased readership, listenership and so on. (Though I do like the idea of beefed up research and expert advice for the Opposition) But I agree that the status quo is not an option while a competitive party system with an incentive for new entrants is also a good thing in itself. The fact that not one of the three largest parties reported any donations at all in an election year is patently absurd. We also know thanks to research from Benoit and Marsh that spending matters and the most successful candidates are those that spend the most. In order to ensure a more level playing field as David suggests why not ensure that every donation is made public and all party accounts should be audited and published. This fear of publishing data is endemic in Ireland. We know for example that political considerations predict the destination of some Exchequer spending. Yet acquiring data on Government spending in a detailed way is difficult. This spending should also be available to any interested citizen (it is after all our money). There is no reason that the political elite under any guise should benefit from secrecy. In the US where the donations are huge in comparison Obama made inroads on the back of many small internet donations. The public can even look and see how individual journalists or academics as well as business people spent their money. Even though I am sure we do not wish to emulate the US in much of this, surely transparency is in the public interest? The bottom line is that the citizen has a right to information.

  3. “As we know from comparative research, it is impossible to get this right.”

    You mean what we know is that it hasn’t been done right – it’s not necessarily impossible.

    “In order to ensure a more level playing field as David suggests why not ensure that every donation is made public and all party accounts should be audited and published.”

    But this does not ensure a more level playing field, it just makes it easier to see the slope in the field.

    I can’t see that making a party or politician sign a declaration that they’ll be honest, as David suggests, would do any good. Even Liam Lawlor would sign that, doesn’t mean it would’ve changed his behaviour one iota!

    I agree that transparency is a good thing, but we don’t just want transparency if we still allow democracy to be subverted. We should want to minimise the impact of money in politics.

  4. “acquiring data on government spending in a detailed way is difficult. This spending should also be available to any interested citizen (it is after all our money).” (Jane Suiter)

    So is the suggestion that we should set up a new department, perhaps titled “for administrative affairs”, to deal with this new information? While it may be desireable to have access to every piece of information about government spending this would be an incredably expensive undertaking. There is always a trade off between efficiency and accountability but a moralistic approach to this issue probably wont help in finding solutions.

    On Eoin’s point “we dont just want transparency if we still allow democracy to be subverted. We should want to minimise the impact of money in politics”. This of course assumes that money is the only way that you can subvert politics. What about manipulating or controlling the media? What about telling lies on doorsteps? Or perhaps moral blackmail which some partys employ? These would probably count as forms of subversion. The argument about money buying posters and manipulating people that way boils down to a lack of conviction (probably justified) that people cant tell when they are being duped by fancy “slogans” or “posters”.

  5. Interesting idea Eoin, though for me the best solution is to maintain a mixture of public and private funding for parties with far more stringent accounting/reporting rules for party expenditures. A simple peice of legislation would be to have all donations to political parties disclosed and reported in annual or even quaterly accounts.

    On banning posters etc., a former colleague at TCD, Laura Sudulich, and I have been looking at (candidate-level)disaggregaed spending returns in the 2007 election. In terms of average spend, ‘posters’ is by far the largest single category of expenditure while ‘other electoral materials’ (i.e. leaflets, brochures etc.) is in second place. The average candidate spent 5,700 euros on ‘posters’ in 2007.

    While in a referendum posters at least contain slogans that are vaguely related to policies decided in general election campaigns they contibute even less to the content of political debate – typically showing the candidates’ face, name and (sometimes in rather small font) party.

    • I agree that there should be a mix of public/ private funding, and complete openness – this might mean ending church gate collections which might now be used to make ‘secret’ large cash donations (I have no evidence for this, but it’s possible, and it’s what I would use to ‘clean’ a large donation.

      It’s interesting that posters are the biggest single campaign expenditure item, and shows how elections could be made cheaper and money less important.

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