Thursday, March 08, 2007
INSIDE POLITICS - Posters
The Kylie moment. Back in 2002, Pat Rabbitte, then a humble backbencher (that's an oxymoron if ever there was one) came out with a rapier comment that was never surpassed during the election campaign.
It was March, early April maybe - certainly a good few weeks before the election campaign was launched. And quicker than the Black Death had spread throughout Europe in the middle ages, Bertie posters had suddenly appeared on every lamp-post in the country.
Rabbitte couldn't avoid them in his Tallaght and Clondalkin heartland. Bertie's face was more ubiquitous in his constituency, he said, than Kylie Minogue's bum. (The Australian icon allegedly had surgery on her backside that - predictably - prompted oodles of pictorial coverage in the tabloid press).
The net point that Rabbitte was making was a serious one: under the electoral acts, there were strict limits on spending by candidates and parties.
In 2002, the limits for each candidate was:
- €25,394.76 (£20,000) in a 3 seat constituency;
- €31,743.45 (£25,000) in a 4 seat constituency;
- €38,092.14 (£30,000) in a 5 seat constituency.
During an election campaign, political parties are allowed, well, a great big zero to begin . The only income they are allowed iswhatever money is assigned by its individual candidates. So for example, a candidate in a 3 seat constituency was allowed 25 grand or so in 2002. The party allowed him or her to keep, say, €15,000 for personal campaign spending with the balance of €10 grand going to the party nationally. With 100 candidates, say, the party could then have an allowance of €1 million.
Not a lot of dough, when you are talking about TV and newspaper ads, leaders' travel expenses, daily launches etc.... all closely monitored by the Standards in Public Office Commission.
But the trick is that these limits only apply DURING the election campaigns (which last barely three weeks).
There are absolutely no limits on spending before the election campaign. That will give an answer as to why Fine Gael have launched a rake of billboards; why the Labour Party has followed suit and the PDs will launch their fourth in a series of five next Sunday when they launch a Health one.
Fine Gael's spend has been incredible, certainly running into seven figures. So far, FF has been the only party to hold back. Expect a blitzkrieg, a tidal wave, an epidemic, a blizzard, a plague of FF stuff from late March/early April.
We have the appearance of ethics and standards in spending and donations since the great unpleasantness of the middle 1990s. But in reality, there is little of it. What we do have is a total swiz, a magician's distraction.
For one, parties can spend as much as they like at any time other than those narrow three weeks of an election campaign.
And for two, what's worse is we don't have a clue how much they raise, despite the introduction of all these laws of transparency.
Sure, you have to declare a donation if it's above a certain limit. What parties have done is made sure that the vast bulk of their individual and corporate donations fall below that limit. So we hear about silent collections and envelopes at Fine Gael and FF shindigs - presidential dinners, Galway Races and the like. But when you see if there's any record of how much has been raised, there is nothing - because all the donations fall tantalisingly below the limit. It's the same with Bertie's Christmas fundraiser in Clontarf castle - it raises a huge amount of money for his well-greased organisation. But how much? The figure remains as much a mystery to the general public as Paddy the Plasterer.
Soon Bertie's face will start to appear everywhere. And for a couple of weeks the country will look like a tinpot former Soviet dictatorship as we succumb to the cult of personality surrounding the one and only The Bert.
By the way, The Bert's legend has spread far and wide - to Canada no less. Check out this comedy sketch: