Breaking the wheel: unlocking the secrecy of party financing is crucial

Political parties raise millions on television marathons. Mass meetings are held with concert-grade sound systems and stages. But do we know where the money comes from?

Fans of Game of Thrones will be familiar with the Mother of Dragons’ oft-repeated aim to ‘break the wheel’. What she meant, for the uninitiated, was the overhaul of a system that kept returning the same group of people to power. One can watch the series to see whether Daenerys accomplished her aim, but suffice it to say that it takes more than brute force to change a calcified way of doing things.

We are still working on sourcing some dragons (the shipping crisis hasn’t helped), but in the meantime, it is becoming evident that institutional change is slowly making its way up the list of public priorities. From op-eds in the papers to Budget feedback, the question of party financing is increasingly on people’s lips.

And rightly so, for despite the best efforts of the political elite, Malta’s electoral system is in many ways similar to a Potemkin village – an attempt to manufacture an illusion of a vibrant democracy.

The truth is that we have little idea about who is actually paying for a campaign. Even the current party financing legislation, riddled with loopholes, is currently unenforceable. In 2018, the Constitutional Court effectively shut down the Electoral Commission’s mandate to oversee political spending due to its role as investigator, prosecutor and judge.

Three years on, the game remains in stalemate, illustrating authorities’ assessment of the importance of bringing political finance under control.

Political parties raise millions on television marathons. Mass meetings are held with concert-grade sound systems and stages. The visual pollution created by political billboards without a permit continues to spread. Candidates  send  brochures  and leaflets, organise events, and produce professional videos. But do we know where the money comes from?

The simple answer is that we don’t know. The obligations parties and candidates must adhere to are unenforced and indeed unenforceable. For example, candidates must submit an account of their spending in the month leading up to an election, but that says little on the sums spent in the periods before and after that month.

So political finance remains opaque, with paper-thin rules that can be circumvented with the smallest of efforts. This situation creates a distortion of democracy, where politicians end up with a shadow constituency that demands that favours are repaid with interest.

This interest comes at the expense of the public, taking the form of direct orders, tenders which are made to measure or modified after award, under-valued public land, and cosy relationships with cabinet-appointed regulators and authorities. The issue is not difficult to understand.

Politicians and political parties need money, and lots of it, to run a campaign, remain relevant, and achieve power – power that can then be used to help those who got them there.

Described by the Caruana Galizia public inquiry as ‘incestuous’, the relationship between politicians and their pay-masters has real consequences for the rest of us. These consequences reached their tragic height in the car bomb that silenced a journalist, but they pervade every facet of political decision-making.

And yet, it is difficult to judge the political class too harshly. Stuck in a Catch-22, all they can do is to try and maintain a strict code of ethics, and there are certainly many who are happy to donate without expecting anything in return.

Politicians’ and political parties’ subservience to those who can fund their campaigns is not an ideal system. It certainly isn’t for the public and the real voter base, usurped as it is by hidden interests.

And while some elements of the business community take advantage of the way things are to make ‘investments’ in candidates’ campaigns, most would rather have a level playing field that allows for fair competition.

What of politicians and political parties themselves, though? Do they like spending so much time asking for handouts? Do they relish being put on the spot as cheques are dangled in front of them in return for the promise of favour? Is the feeling of being indebted to one’s financiers somehow exciting, perhaps even titillating?

For some, perhaps. For most, this is certainly not the case. People generally enter politics with some idea of serving the public good and effecting change that improves their constituents’ lives.

Few would admit to being simple marionettes, or to enjoy the pressures they face to let their hands be moved by strings that are no less real despite being invisible to the public.

Moviment Graffitti is therefore campaigning for reform in political finance with the wholehearted belief that while it is an important step towards a better democracy, it is but one part of a wider overhaul required. Anyone wishing to contribute to this campaign is invited to contact us. The wheel isn’t going to break itself.