Funding ceiling must be lowered as election spending gets out of hand

I HAVE a friend who went to a posh Munster boarding school back in the 1970s. When the lights went out every night in the dorm the competition would always begin with the words: "My father has two Zetors."

Funding ceiling must be lowered as election spending gets out of hand

No wonder one of our founding myths is the Black Bull of Cooley, wherein a Co. Louth couple tore the country apart over whose bull was the biggest.

We’re still at it, aren’t we? You would think a country in which most households have had to cut the living daylights out of their budget would not be subjected to ostentatious displays of wealth at election time. But not a bit of it. I have a path worn to the green bin with all the flyers. There’s barely an urban lamp-post which doesn’t have three posters on it and one of them nearly takes the eye out of my 15-year-old as he cycles to school. I kayaked down the Liffey at the weekend for a bit of head-space and was faced with a building wrapped in a gigantic election poster.

And that’s just what’s happened since official postering began on April 23. Long before we had customised bus shelters in Dublin covered in the logo and mug shot of some particularly lovely local candidates. You can’t buy one bus shelter, you have to buy at least 50 advertising panels, two per shelter. The best quote I got for them yesterday was a package of 100 advertising panels which would do 50 bus shelters, as well as five “vinyl wraps” for €25,000. The “vinyl wraps” on their own are usually two grand each. In other words you need to be a big party with big financial muscle to wrap a shelter.

Then there’s the customised cars. A friend was gob-smacked when she saw one candidate-mother picking up her kids in a car entirely wrapped with mug-shots and slogans. The best quote I got yesterday for a fully-customised car was about €1,000, which wouldn’t be half as bad as the stick you’d get from your children, with “You’re embarrassing me, Mam” taking on a whole new dimension.

The spending limit on candidates for the local elections — for part-time jobs for five years on €16.724 a year plus expenses — is €9,750, €11,500 to €13,000, depending on the size of your constituency. This is down from €15,000 in 2009 and, as Minister Hogan said as he announced the election dates, “It is important that those involved in politics are subject to cost reductions at a time of economic constraint.” And isn’t he right? Sure, €13,000 would barely buy you a hairshirt let alone a blueshirt.

The only problem is that any average person could not possibly raise that kind of money. I spoke to such a candidate recently and she said she’d spent €5,000, most of it on baby-sitting. She said she had been gutted, after canvassing tirelessly for two years, to come out of her hall door and see the bus shelter covered in an opponent’s advertising.

Two horrible, related truths emerge from this as regards the local elections. The first is that the big parties see spending on the local elections as down-payments on well-paid seats in the Dáil. The second is that the big parties clearly part-fund their candidates’ campaigns from State funds. Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil get generous state funding to run their organisations, but this money is not meant to be used for campaigns. It must be, however, because as Mary Regan recently reported in these pages there can be a massive gap between declared election expenses and declared donations. In the 2011 General Election €9.28 million was declared in expenses while just €30,997 was declared in donations to the SIPO (Standards in Public Office).

Transparency International has called the lack of data on the funding of political parties in this country a “corruption risk area”. . Yet despite the facts laid bare by the Mc Cracken, Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are still kicking against the requirement for full disclosure of party funding from branches under the Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Act (2012) saying the local branches can’t be expected to have professional accounting standards.

Why the hell not? I can barely add or subtract but I’ve never run a cake sale without proper accounts.

But a full account of every single little donation to political parties might reveal patterns of donations. As Elaine Byrne wrote recently in The Sunday Business Post, because a corporate donor may donate €2,500 to a political party and €1,000 to each of its members in the same calendar year, he or she would be entitled to donate €78,000 to Fine Gael, €39,500 to Labour, €22,500 to Fianna Fáil and €16,500 to Sinn Féin. Nor do we have an outright ban on donations from corporations which are government-owned or have government contracts, unlike 30 of the 43 European countries surveyed by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

It’s unclear where the money for these lavish local election campaigns is coming from, but it’s clear that funding such a campaign is beyond the reach of an everyday citizen without the backing of a big party. And that’s far more certain to be the case with a campaign for a seat in the European Parliament, which has a spending ceiling of — wait for it — €230,000.

AT A time of rising homelessness and massive personal indebtedness the political class is actually telling the average citizen that he or she can spend the price of a family home on a campaign to take a seat in the European Parliament.

“The Irish people can’t be bought”, said Eurosceptic candidate Peter O’Loughlin in the Primetime European candidates’ debate for Ireland South. But the research into the local elections of 1999 and the General Election of 2002 (Kenneth Benoit and Michael Marsh) clearly shows that those who spend more are likely to win more. We are no different in that to people anywhere: EU-wide research quoted by David Farrell, Maria Lara Sudulich and Matthew Wall in a paper called “Why Bother Campaigning?” after the last European elections showed average spending by “winners” of €60,000 while “losers” reported spending just under €15,000 on average.

What we need now, either from this Government or those who want to make the next one, is a commitment that there will never again be an election like this one. The funding ceiling must come crashing down, perhaps to €5,000 for a local candidate and €10,000 for a European candidate. The number of posters per candidate must be capped. There must be a ban on commercial advertising by candidates outside the postering period and a ban on “public meeting” posters with mug-shots on them.

Either we take the buying of elections seriously right now or we lie back like Queen Maeve watching her herd go by and enjoy being bought.

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