Campaign finance reform now


Is the “crime talks” project really now on the hearse, awaiting final rites before the political cemetery? Was this inevitable?

Whatever, we should learn some lessons. Look, this was a political project which struggled to overcome our adversarial system.

The PM recognised the political reality when he said the Opposition sees high crime as “a bonanza.”

Of course, many had high hopes, but, frankly, the Constitution legalises political division. The public pressures for “joint crime talks” and unity really reflect an indirect desire for political and constitution reform. Such “talks” would not work well in a divisive political and artificial first-past-the-post election system.

So it’s now time for parties to move on, retrieve any lost credibility and demonstrate to the electorate a genuine oath-driven commitment to good and honest government.

I therefore propose urgently implementing campaign-finance legislation before the next general election.

This is really a re-awakening call – also a test of political credibility and integrity. Both Dr Rowley and Ms Kamla Persad-Bissessar have pledged in Parliament to make the reforms. Further, there were two early successful motions in the senate calling for campaign finance legislation – one by me and another by senator Helen Drayton.

After this, in 2015 Ms Persad-Bissessar told Parliament she was “very committed to campaign finance reform” and referred the matter to a joint select committee whose recommendations “Parliament would be sending to the Law Reform Commission to begin drafting a green paper.”

Sounds very good, but even that promise didn’t convince the electorate. She lost the election, and so did her promise. Maybe as Opposition Leader now, she could file a motion alongside her “stand your ground” one – helping to bring some more seriousness into Parliament.

With moral uprightness, the PM in 2020 declared: “It brings me great satisfaction to inform this august House that my government, unlike any other government before us, has the fortitude to fulfil this promise of presenting legislation to address the issue of campaign finance.”

Wow, that sounded like a political slap. Presenting the details of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, Dr Rowley referred the matter to a joint select committee. However, Parliament was dissolved and the election called on August 10, 2020.

Why do these PMs wait until the eve of a general election to make such grandstanding promise on election campaign finance reforms? Just to help them win without being tied down to the promise?

Because after Persad-Bissessar’s 2015 promise and Dr Rowley’s 2020 promise, not another word. They can’t get vexed when people don’t believe them.

High Court judge Frank Seepersad, in his judgment over a disputed “loan” given by businessman Krishna Lalla to politician Jack Warner, raised questions of potential corruption from unregulated election campaign finance. As recalled in the Privy Council judgement, Justice Seepersad, for example, said: ‘There was an entrenched public perception that money paid by way of campaign finance was the functional equivalent of bribes to ensure that favourable treatment was given by government to those providing the funds.”

This was quite an interesting case as evidenced by the Privy Council ruling against our Appeal Court and in favour of the High Court judgment by Seepersad. Now while, as I explained in my motion in 2009, political parties in a democracy need some financial support in the electoral competition, at the same time, such money should not be used to subvert the “fair and free” basis of the elections. Money given to a political party in government should not be used as a bribe.

One of the difficulties in regulating election-campaign financing is that a financial donation could be seen as part of freedom of speech. How much becomes a dilemma.

The long and short of all this is that both political leaders have formally promised to implement election campaign finance legislation. Our election campaign could do with some sanitation. Let’s see how the PNM and UNC will now keep their promises before the next elections. If they don’t, the question will be “why?”


"Campaign finance reform now"

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