~ Council reminded MPs can make changes ~
PHILIPSBURG--"Difficult to comply with" and "complicated" were some of the ways some Members of Parliament (MPs) described the stipulations in the national ordinance on the registration and financing of political parties when they met with the Electoral Council in a meeting of the Central Committee of Parliament.
Council member Linda Richardson, a former minister, countered their argument by reminding them that several MPs objecting to the stipulations were the ones who had been members of the Island Council of the then-Island Territory of St. Maarten that had approved the ordinance in 2010. She minced no words when she told MPs they should read their laws before agreeing to them and if they wanted to see them changed, they as MPs had to be the ones to make this happen.
She said Council Chairman Bert Hofman, Vice-Chairwoman Celia Richardson and she herself had listened to MPs and were "a bit concerned" that they were dealing with a Parliament that had "nothing to do with the law." MPs who want to see changes to the ordinance should have brought these to Parliament, she said.
Linda Richardson said that from the statements from MPs, "it seems like the law was not read." She pointed out that the ordinance was readily available on Parliament's own Website and on the Website of government in English and Dutch. She suggested that MPs "really look at the law again."
National Alliance (NA) parliamentarian Louie Laveist said he was "not comfortable" with rules outlined in the national ordinance. The MP, who was an Island Councilman in 2010, described the capping of amounts individuals or businesses can make to a political party as "a grotesque violation of the democratic right of a citizen." The rules as is are "trampling on democracy," he said.
He said he was "all for rules," but not these "very, very draconian-like rules." His main concern was that the rules would limit the possibility of new political parties and benefit a rich one.
Laveist argued that if there were a cap on campaign financing there would be no issues about who had given how much to a single party. Linda Richardson said the council also was "surprised" that the law did not have a cap on campaign spending.
Independent (former NA) MP Frans Richardson said Parliament had had no opportunity to debate the law. He described its handling in the last days of the Island Council as "rushed" and carried out in "a hasty manner." He said that when he had voted to approve it as a then-Island Councilman he had hoped there would be time to review the law and make changes when Parliament was established.
Frans Richardson sees the law presenting "a challenge and battle" for the parties to keep up with the "stringent" regulations. Political parties will have "to hire lawyers and accountants" to ensure they stay within the legal perimeters.
Frans Richardson told the Electoral Council, "You may want to follow the law to the tee, but you will have to give a little leeway [to parties – Ed]." His reason for this call was that the stipulations in the law are "difficult to follow and comply with" and require all candidates on a party's slate to realise their responsibility under the law.
Frans Richardson said the council only being physically in place and members appointed in January was the fault of Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams (DP), who had been tasked with executing the regulation since 10-10-10. "Parliament is not taking any blame [for issues arising now – Ed]. This is squarely with the prime minister."
United People's (UP) party leader MP Theo Heyliger queried the need for political parties to submit their manifestos on Nomination Day. He sees this as leaving candidates out of the development process, because often candidates for an election are not fully secured until that day. The process of putting an election slate together is "a dynamic one."
The council is working from the premise that political parties should have their manifestos ready for submission to the council by Nomination Day. This timeline was countered by several MPs.
Heyliger said the rules were "going to be brutal" and would require parties to hire people to ensure they were in full compliance. He has "no issue" with regulating the financing of political parties. However, his concern lies with the complexity of policing 23 candidates and their finances during an election year.
Heyliger said he had had concerns with the ordinance when it was brought to the former Island Council of which he had been a member in 2010, but not supporting its passing had the stigma of being against the quest for country status.
Independent (former NA) MP Dr. Lloyd Richardson said the ordinance was not in accordance with best practices. He believes it is "unfair" to the three-person Electoral Council, headed by attorney Bert Hofman, to finalise and carry out the process required in the ordinance in the short period of time before elections.
Lloyd Richardson said the ordinance specifically made separate two entities, the party and the candidate, by asking the party to be "an accomplice" in their financial administration. "This is unacceptable."
Celia Richardson of the council said all candidates were responsible to ensure their finances were in order and in accordance with the ordinance.
Lloyd Richardson believes several articles of the ordinance "need to be revisited." He expressed concern that the ordinance does not cover penalties for people who make insinuations about a candidate receiving money without having proof of such and for people making derogatory statements about candidates.
Democratic Party (DP) MP Leroy de Weever said there were "inconsistencies" in the ordinance, but it was too late now to make changes. He enquired about the other consequences if a party or candidate were found in contravention of the regulations.
NA Parliamentarian George Pantophlet said the ordinance was "unrealistic" and had been "passed in haste" by the Island Council of which he had been a part in 2010. The haste was credited to "the need to get to 10-10-10" – the date St. Maarten became a country within the Dutch Kingdom. He said changes to the ordinance could be made by Parliament.
MP Jules James (UP) agreed that changes were possible and suggested that Parliament issue an instruction to government to draft "fast changes" to the ordinance for Parliament to handle ahead of this year's elections.
NA leader MP William Marlin said MPs had no one to blame but themselves. At the start of Parliament MPs were given a package of laws that included this ordinance. He added that MPs could have requested a review of the law, similar to the review carried out to revise the Rules of Order of Parliament.
The Electoral Council was established by ordinance prior to 10-10-10 and was put physically in place as of January this year, Marlin said. Considering when the establishment took place, he said to his fellow MPs that questioning the council would be "to question ourselves."
Marlin pointed out that with the physical setting up of the council only taking place this year, no elections could have been held prior to that time. This means that Marlin's own fervent call for elections last year during the "Mexican Standoff," as the government crisis was deemed when NA was pushed out of government, could not have taken place.
Electoral Council Chairman Bert Hofman explained the basics of the law to MPs. That process includes political parties registering with the council and the ultimate publication of that registration in the National Gazette. Parties will have to pay for that placement and the procedure to facilitate this is being worked out with government's Legal Affairs Department.
Parties also are expected to submit their financial reports for every calendar year to the council by April 1 of the following year. Those reports will be reviewed by the General Audit Chamber and subsequently made public. This procedure will allow the public to see who the financial donors to the parties are.
A political party or a candidate can accept donations of a sum or a value in excess of NAf. 5,000 only if these originate from enfranchised residents of St. Maarten, non-Dutch residents of St. Maarten who were residents for at least five years prior to the date on which the donation was made, and from businesses and social organisations registered in St. Maarten.
A political party and a candidate cannot accept donations from businesses in which the country participates or from institutions subsidised by the government.
In any calendar year, donations made to the same political party by a person, company or institution shall not exceed a total sum or value of NAf. 30,000 while those made to a candidate cannot exceed a total sum or value of NAf. 20,000.
In any calendar year, donations made to the same political party and to candidates of that same political party by a person, company or institution shall not exceed a total sum of NAf. 50,000.
Donations in excess of the maximum set limit shall not be accepted or shall be returned to the donor by the party or candidate.
Cash donations to a political party or a candidate in excess of NAf. 5,000 are prohibited. Failure to comply with the regulation on the registration and financing of political parties carries a penalty of jail time and fines.