News Fionnan Sheahan

Thursday 2 October 2014

Phil Hogan has killed any new party at birth

New rules on fundraising could come at a cost to democracy

Group Political Editor Fionnan Sheahan

Published 02/02/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan
Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan

Although not exactly a priority – bags of Refreshers and Stinger bars to hand out are a luxury a well-funded campaign can afford.

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Lucinda Creighton's campaign in the 2007 General Election when she was elected as a Fine Gael TD for the first time, spent €280 on sweets.

It was part of a total spend of almost €31,000 over the course of the four-week campaign, along with the predictable costs of posters, leaflets, canvass cards, cable ties, stickers, postage and stationery.

Her election agent's expenses returns to the Standards In Public Office Commission (SIPOC) also show renting a constituency office for just the few months in the run-up to the election, cost €18,000 – €3,900 of which was marked down as election expenses as it was incurred during the official 26-day campaign.

Not a whole lot of change out of €45,000 – €50,000 in just the three months running up to polling day. Ms Creighton serves just as one example of what it costs to ensure a new candidate makes the breakthrough.

The bills are met by a combination of a party war-chest, the local party organisation's funds, personal savings and fundraising efforts.

Ms Creighton held a successful fundraiser in the Shelbourne Park greyhound track in February 2007.

She also took in €10,000 in 10 donations of €1,000 from supporters, including Arthur Cox Solicitors and Rhonellen Developments, as declared in separate returns to SIPOC. All perfectly within the rules.

Fine Gael banked €1.4m in December 2006 from selling €80 tickets for its national draw that year for spending on the campaign.

The party's then golden girl had the advantage of being part of a well-oiled machine, with the assistance of veteran activists who had contacts and knew how to raise money.

The chances of a fresh candidate replicating that feat in a new party, with no established organisation and fundraising mechanisms, are slim.

Ms Creighton doesn't need to spend money to build her profile these days, but any new candidate still would. A new party and its candidates would need funding to compete with Fine Gael.

The most significant obstacle to any new party getting off the ground is not a policy deficit but the new laws around fundraising.

The clampdown came in the wake of the era of tribunals and the link – in the minds of many – between the cosy relationship between the political system and big business, and the economic collapse.

The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 reduces the donation a political party can accept from €6,348 to €2,500.

Any company giving a corporate donation over €200 has to be registered with SIPOC – a restriction most organisations will stay well away from.

Getting a new party's structure in place without access to the big bucks as start-up capital is the problem. Only the established parties have the organisation in place to bring in small sums from large numbers of supporters.

A new party also doesn't have access to taxpayer funding until after the general election, cutting off that source of income too.

By closing the door on fundraising after the main parties, Phil Hogan has killed off any chance of a new party even getting off the ground to become a major player on the landscape. Cleaning up politics has come at a potential cost to democracy into the future.

Irish Independent

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