Monday, August 15

No hopping, political financing next!

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Abidin Ideas

THE Constitutional (Amendment) (No 3) Bill 2022 — “the Anti-Hopping Bill” — is journeying through the Dewan Rakyat as I write. With approval by the Dewan Negara and assent from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, law minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar says it will be implemented by end September – though sceptics voice concerns about a sudden U-turn.

Civil society groups have long been pushing for such a law, and finally, a majority of MPs have grasped that the repeated occurrence of party hopping devalues trust in all of them – thus agreement of this reform in last year’s memorandum of understanding between the government and Pakatan Harapan. The theory is that with these new provisions, MPs no longer can (or need) to hedge their bets on which leader or party to follow for political success, because they will be obliged to be loyal.

Still, the significance and expected effectiveness of these particular amendments will take time to be proven. The Sheraton Move “would have not taken place” with these provisions in force, writes Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming, but a mid-term change of government can still take place if a party decides to change coalition midway. And by “party”, in Malaysia one still really means the party leadership, given the centralised way in which parties are structured. Thus, in theory, MPs will still be able to change sides – and against their will – for to resign in protest at the party’s decision is to also lose one’s seat.

That is why another important mechanism to disincentive party hopping is to democratise the parties themselves, particularly in terms of candidate selection. There are many options to choose from: the caucuses and primaries of the United States, or the “A-list” model adopted by the British Conservative party in which highly qualified individuals (usually from minority groups) are recommended by party headquarters, but party members within a constituency have the final say.  Ultimately this is for parties to reform internally within themselves, rather than be forced to change through legislation.

There is yet another reform that can further halt party hopping, and that is political financing, since hopping often happens because of the enticement of resources.

Recent public outrage has focused on large donations being made to politicians by companies winning government contracts or others perceived to want things from ministers. Hardly anyone believes the inevitable denials from the accused as the corruption is seen as institutionalised and normal. I have even heard the defence that “clean politicians need to do it to compete with the (more) corrupt for resources”. That is a tragic logic that will forever prevent change.

Following the same principle that all MPs realise such practices tarnish their whole profession, there may be an opportunity to pass a Political Financing Act that overhauls how money is raised, spent, and regulated for our politics.

On July 13, a Private Member’s Bill was submitted with these objectives, drafted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Political Financing. This APPG – established in April and comprising nine MPs and one senator from different political parties – is itself a creature of parliamentary reform following the formation of Parliamentary Select Committees, and officially recognised by Parliament. Its members include eleven CSO members, of which the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) serves as Secretariat.

The Bill defines “political financing” as “the activity of sourcing funds for expenditure incurred during party activities and to sustain the party machinery. These activities include fundraising, costs of maintaining permanent offices, carrying out policy research, conducting polls and political education, running advertising campaigns for policies, and mobilising voters”.

The core contents of the Bill are that only political parties (and not candidates – though I wonder about independents …) are permitted to receive donations; a Parliamentary Select Committee and independent Commission on Political Financing shall be established; a Political Party Fund will be established to administer public funding to parties based on the votes received during an election; the Commission shall submit a report on the Fund to the Auditor-General; a cap of RM50,000, RM100,000, and RM500,000 for donations from individuals, companies, and a group of companies respectively; banning donations from GLCs and statutory bodies; bonus money to parties if they have more women elected representatives; banning donations from foreign governments; and all donations above RM3,000 to be recorded in a donation report to the Commission.

It is unlikely that this Bill will make it through; indeed, no Private Member’s Bill has ever succeeded through all stages of becoming law.  Yet, this effort shows that bipartisan support is possible, and perhaps one day soon, just as with Undi18, automatic voter registration, and anti-hopping, such a law may become a reality.