‘Political Funding Bill a must for reforms’

PETALING JAYA: Despite strong declarations by the government about institutional reforms and combating corruption, there does not seem to be much appetite for the proposed Political Funding Bill, says a British academic who is being consulted on the law.

Assoc Prof Fernando Casal Bertoa (pic) of University of Nottingham said Malaysia has an opportunity to set the standard in the region if it pulls it through.

“Those favourable to it (the Bill) tend to be less powerful and influential – as such, it is vital for civil society organisations and the media to help push for the regulation of political financing.

“Malaysia can become a real trend-setter in the region, where party funding tends to be loosely regulated and, for example, public funding is conspicuous by its absence,” he said in an interview.

Casal Bértoa, who is an expert on comparative politics, was here recently to meet with Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reforms) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, MPs and NGOs to provide insights on the issue.

He said another core issue is proper enforcement with stringent monitoring by independent bodies, adding that Malaysia does not have agencies fulfilling the conditions needed for this oversight.

This is because such an oversight body would need to be fully independent as well as given enough power to perform its duties while implementing the law, he added.

“It is for this reason the Political Funding Bill must go hand in hand with institutional reforms. No matter which authority is finally chosen, it has to become fully independent, powerful and (given the proper resources),” he said.

On what should be included in the Bill, he said these would be allowing public funding, caps on donations, banning third-party donations (foreign, anonymous or corporate), and a realistic framework with different types of sanctions (fines, imprisonment, forfeiture, loss of public funding), to name a few.

He also said there is a need to create a transparent and centralised system of reporting, whereby parties present reports on their income and expenditure that are available to the public.

He also advised that limits on political spending during elections should be realistic to ensure all parties would be able to run effective campaigns.

He added that no matter what system is adopted in the Political Funding Bill, the maximum expenditure limits should also be determined in relation to the size of the electorate.

“It is best if limits are designed to account for inflation. This requires that legal limits are based on a form of indexation rather than absolute amounts,” he said.

At present, the threshold set under the Elections Offences Act for state candidates is that they can spend up to RM100,000 while parliamentary candidates can spend up to RM200,000.

Casal Bértoa, who was involved in the research project “The Institutionalisation of European Party Systems: Explaining Party Competition in 48 Democracies”, said although there is no perfect electoral spending cap, the current limits are not realistic and must change.

He cited the Venice Commission and OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Guidelines of Political Party Regulation as one of the main documents on best practices in the world for this issue.

He added that most experts recommend a maximum spending limit that consists of a relative sum determined by factors such as the voting population in a particular constituency and the costs for campaign materials and services.

In May, All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) on Political Financing chairman Wong Chen said the draft Bill would be presented to Azalina for the government’s consideration.

The Bill has been ready since last November, but the committees were only activated on May 22, Wong added.

On Sept 7 last year, the then government agreed in principle to a law on political funding when the Political Funding Bill was presented to the Cabinet.

Although a political funding law was mooted in 2016 by the then National Consultative Committee on Political Financing, it faced resistance from several quarters, including Pakatan Harapan.

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