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MaltaToday 30 October 2022

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19 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 30 OCTOBER 2022 NEWS attached […] Another candidate at the time was reported to have given gifts of bags of oranges, with a picture of herself, to elderly persons living in a residential care home […] These cases gave rise to controversy, but they fell outside the scope of the General Elections Act." Even when such abuses take place in the course of an electoral campaign, they often go unnoticed, or unpunished. "In another case, only a few days before the 2022 election, another candidate was al- leged to have gifted voters in his constit- uency with fuel vouchers, sent to their addresses together with a campaign leaf- let. There have been no subsequent me- dia reports indicating that this case was investigated by the authorities." All this, and more, leads the Stand- ards Commission to ask "whether there should be a cap on campaign spending by candidates throughout the electoral cycle, that is from one election to anoth- er regardless of when the official cam- paign starts"; and also, "how to enforce such a cap effectively, in terms of how candidates should report their expendi- ture and to whom they should report it." Non-level playing field For smaller parties struggling to com- pete with their larger counterparts, none of this is particularly 'new'. ADPD's Ralph Cassar notes that his party – and he himself – has been trying to draw public attention to the same issue for decades. But he also stresses that the problem goes beyond mere financial disparity alone. "To be frank, I expect candidates to spend a couple of thousand euros [in an election campaign]. No candidate of ours spent more than around €1,300. Some spent much less. As for myself, I spent around €900 in all for both dis- tricts (7 and 11) I contested. As you can imagine the highest costs are printing and distribution of just one leaflet. You have to get you name out there; and so- cial media, attractive as it may be, is sim- ply not enough." The real issue, however, involves "do- nations in kind - from marquees to ex- pensive receptions – which are not de- clared anywhere. What are the donors expecting in return? I think the answer is in the direct orders they get for setting up lighting, stages, marquees and what not for government events. So I am not surprised that Labour candidates – and some candidates in particular – spent the most. God knows the real value of the 'services rendered'. It's simply a transaction […] You probably remember the days when the Nationalists were the favourites – and their spending on cam- paigns, outstripped Labour's by far." As for what can be done about the problem, Cassar simply quotes a re- cent OECD report: "The PL and PN, as parliamentary parties are vastly better resourced than the smaller parties, pos- sessing significant business interests including real estate and media outlets, resulting in an imbalance in campaign funding available to the various parties; [this] emphasized the need for introduc- ing adequately regulated and transparent public funding system, in line with the international standards." For Cassar, this amounts to "a clear in- dictment of PL/PN companies as mon- ey laundering machines. In democratic countries with high standards, political parties are not allowed to own private companies. Ownership of private com- panies opens the doors wide for hiding financing of the party propaganda ma- chine […]. One and NET are campaign- ing entities, disguised as companies to circumvent the law. Not to mention tax- payer 'loans' to PL and PN companies – unpaid VAT, unpaid utility bills, unpaid national insurance contributions – these are all taxpayer 'loans' to prop up PL and PN. I was under the impression that we are supposed to have higher standards than Zimbabwe or North Korea here!" State censorship In similar vein, former ADPD Chair- man – now independent candidate – Arnold Cassola concurs that 'money' should not be the only measure of cam- paign expenditure. "Money is all well and good; obviously it would be helpful if smaller parties had access to more funding. But what really counts, when it comes to getting your point across to the electorate, is access to the media." It is here, Cassola argues, that the real advantage lies for the two larger parties. "Not only do they both have private me- dia of their own – which are permitted to continue operating, even though they are both manifestly bankrupt – but they are also given regular coverage on State media, at all times of the year; while smaller parties are offered a mere 30 minutes; and even then, only as part of the BA electoral broadcasts, during the campaign itself." Effectively, this translates into a situ- ation whereby the two parties are given free publicity, all year round, at the ex- pense of the tax-payer; while the rest are relegated to just half an hour, once every five years. "We are effectively banished from State TV and radio," Cassola concludes; a situ- ation he claims has actually grown worse, in recent years. "Since the last election, I have issued 55 press releases. Now: I don't expect them all to be given the same importance by all the media. I understand that the media have their own priorities, and so on. But while the independent media do report on at least part of what I issue, the State Broadcaster PBS has never, not even once, reported even a fraction of it. And this, in spite of the fact that PBS is pub- licly funded to the tune of €60 million a year; and it also has a Constitutional ob- ligation to ensure impartiality and fair- ness, in its political reporting." Turning to the money side of the equa- tion, Cassola echoes a point repeatedly stressed throughout the Commission's report. "If you ask me, the biggest dis- crepancy by far is not 'how much was spent'; it's that candidates only have to declare what they spent for the 33-day period of the actual campaign. In the 2019 MEP election, for instance, Labour candidate Josianne Cutajar only declared €47,042 [just short of the maximum of €50,000]… but that didn't include all the tens of thousands she had spent on promotional material, in the months and years before the campaign. The fact that one of these items was a banner on the façade of the Quaint Hotel in Nadur, leads me to believe that one of her spon- sors must have been [construction mag- nate] Joseph Portelli. Either way, to me it is ridiculous that the law only covers the 33-day period of a campaign… and ig- nores everything that's spent for the rest of the four-and-a-half-years." Nonetheless, the question remains: is it time – as the Standards Commission suggests – to reform the current legisla- tion? And if so, how? As the lowest-spending candidate by far, the PN's Eve Borg Bonello is perhaps ideally-placed to answer it. The first part is easy enough: "Yes; because as things stand, it is definitely not a level playing field: especially when one considers that most of the high-spending candidates had months and years preparing and campaigning on the ground; in compar- ison to candidates allowed to contest at the last second - like myself, only having had a month-long campaign." The second part of the question, how- ever, would have to entail a much far- ther-reaching reform. "The problem lies here: what kind of spending limits can be imposed, especially on those who declare their candidacy in the last 60 days, while spending months campaigning unoffi- cially? How could it be controlled, with- out changing to a party-list system?" However, Borg Bonello also argues that a party-list system – as exists in most other European democracies – "would not work in the Maltese system, which is centred around the candidate." "In the American system, funds are au- dited by an agency and the government pays the candidate matching the amount of the funds collected, which I think ap- plies more to our Westminster [Parlia- mentary] model. In the Maltese system, a candidate can collect all the funding they like, but are limited to €20,000 per district. Like everything else, all systems have their benefits and flaws, but my question is this: isn't voluntary fundrais- ing, in terms of donating to a candidate, a sort of a democratic freedom in itself, a form of freedom of expression? Also, shouldn't we have full-time MPs (and less of them), with a decent salary? A cam- paign doesn't end when getting elected; politicians are re-elected depending on their work as an MP. And as things stand, opposition MPs have extremely limited resources..." Nonetheless, she concurs with Ralph Cassar, Arnold Cassola and the Stand- ards Commissioner, in calling for more transparency in the campaign expendi- ture process: "Ironically enough, most donors tend to offer donations to those candidates who typically don't really need it: already established personalities or people with huge potential, that donors see as most likely to get elected. In my case, I was never offered donations as no one really thought I had a shot: especially after only being allowed to contest six months af- ter submitting a declaration of interest in contesting, leaving me with only 40 days to get to parliament. I guess the world works in funny ways… that's anoth- er reason why I believe in fully audited and transparent campaign funding and lobbying rules, so everyone knows who's paying who, and what." Top: Big budget Labour rallies... Inset: Arnold Cassola, Ralph Cassar and Eve Borg Bonello

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