“Funding Opposition Parties: a per MP formula or on the basis of need”. The Fiji Times, 24 January 2015
Funding political parties: per MP or according to need?
Professor Wadan Narsey (edited version in The Fiji Times, 24 January 2015)
The recently announced funding arrangement for the political parties in parliament has been severely criticized by the Opposition parties SODELPA and National Federation Party (NFP).
They accuse the Bainimarama Government of unilaterally deciding to change from an arrangement in which certain staff positions were funded by tax payers, to a formula whereby each political party receives $15,000 per elected Member of Parliament, thereby giving FFP an excessive $480,000 per annum, $225,000 per annum to SODELPA and NFP a mere $45,000).
They argue that the funding is not enough to enable them to be an effective Opposition, properly scrutinizing the government, in the interests of all the voters.
It would seem from media reports that while the Secretary General to Parliament (Mrs Viniana Namosimalua) may have made the final decision on funding arrangements, it was the Minister of Finance who had made the initial recommendation to change from a system of financing of necessary posts in the Opposition Offices, to an “amount per MP” formula, with the Secretary General merely increasing the amount from $10,000 per MP to $15,000 per MP.
But is an “amount per MP” an appropriate funding formula for the financing of an effective Opposition to Government?
The Secretary General may have made a better decision had she consulted with the only economist in the Bainimarama Government, the Minister of Education, who faces a similar funding problem with schools, with the Ministry clearly rejecting a “per capita” formula.
The Government position
The government’s claim, which seems reasonable at first glance, is that the funding mechanism is “fair”: the more MPs you have in Parliament, the more voters you represent, and the more your funding should be in direct proportion to the MPs, so you can serve the voters who voted you in.
But there are several weaknesses in the argument.
Weakness Number 1 is that only 12 MPs of the FFP are back benchers; the 20 others are all Ministers or Assistant Ministers who already have access to the services of all the civil servants in their departments and should not be needing resources to serve their voters, and neither should their back-bencher colleagues.
But if we assume that the FFP back benchers also need to have independent resources, then FFP should only be given (12* $15,000) or $180,000 for the work of FFP back benchers.
Weakness Number 2 is that the funding formula denies those political parties whose candidates were not elected because of the 5% threshold required by the electoral system, for MPs to be elected.
On strict proportionality, FLP would had have 2 MPs in Parliament and PDP 1 MP, these two in total receiving $45,000 according to the “per MP” formula.
A truly proportional funding formula for Opposition Parties ought to be based NOT on “MPs in Parliament” but on “votes received by the different political parties”. But even that would not be satisfactory.
Weakness Number 3 and the most important is that a “per MP funding formula” is simply NOT an appropriate mechanism to facilitate an effective opposition to the government of the day.
The Opposition MPs need to engage quality staff who can do the research on all the wide range of policy issues that come up in parliament; they need to travel and have dialogue with the electorate, including even supporters of the governing party; and pay for costs of communications such as Internet, phones, etc.
Thus the $45,000 allocated to NFP in proportion to the number of MPs they have in Parliament will simply not be enough to hire even one quality staff member.
Learn from Ministry of Education
The Secretary General to Parliament should note that the Ministry of Education has for decades rejected the simplistic “per capita” funding of schools which would inevitably mean that schools with small enrolments will not get enough funds to have the physical resources they require for effective teaching and learning: libraries, computers, Internet access, sports facilities, etc.
A simplistic per capita funding formula for schools would inevitably and unfairly give far too much resources to the schools with large enrolments.
The Minister of Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) is currently (and rightly) in the process of allocating extra teaching and ancillary resources to rural and maritime schools way beyond what their student numbers would justify, because their pass rates have been extremely poor compared to the larger urban schools.
Learn from USP
This same problem occurred twenty five years ago at our regional university (USP), when one member of the senior management quite wrongly tried to allocate internal funding to the faculties on a simplistic “per student” basis.
It was pointed out to them (by the Director of Planning and Development, then yours truly) that such a crude and simplistic formula would unfairly destroy the science faculty because of their smaller enrolments, even though they need more resources because of their expensive science laboratories.
A simplistic “per capita” funding model would also destroy the small departments in the arts and social sciences faculty (such as history and politics) which did not have large enrollments but still needed to be kept alive because of their importance to the university communities.
Unfairly benefiting with massive increases in funding would be the faculties of arts and social sciences because of their massive enrollments in accounting, economics and administration.
Yet common sense indicated that an economics class with enrollment of 400 did not require ten times as much resources as a politics class with an enrollment of 40: both needed just one lecturer, with the lecturer for large classes being assisted by lots of less costly tutors and marking assistants.
The way forward
I suggest that the funding formula for Opposition political parties should NOT be on a “per MP” basis, but that of reasonable “need”:
how many support staff do Opposition Parties need to serve the voters of the country who are dis-satisfied with some aspect of government’s operations, which can include voters who may even have voted for the government in the elections (as in the land sales legislation issue), or parties denied seats in Parliament because of the 5% threshold?
The Secretary General should consider setting up an independent committee (including neutral persons from outside parliament) to relook at a proper formula for the use of tax payer funds for the adequate funding of the opposition parties, including those who received significant votes in the elections but are not represented in parliament because of the 5% threshold.
The Secretary General might ask the team that is already visiting British parliaments, to also examine what mechanism they use to fund their Opposition Parties to be effective in the interests of the nation, as well as learn from best practice in other comparable countries.