The 5th Session of the 11th Republican Parliament has gone into the history books with the People’s National Movement (PNM) not delivering on its manifesto promise of campaign finance legislation.
In that regard, the ruling party cannot be singled out for not keeping that promise. Past governments on all sides of T&T’s political divide stand accused of playing fast and loose with this vital piece of legislation. The previous People’s Partner administration established a parliamentary committee on the issue of campaign finance reform, but it became defunct in 2015.
As recently as May, there was a glimmer of hope that such a law would see the light of day before the country went to the polls. In a statement to Parliament on the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2020, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley spoke of his administration’s commitment to enacting the legislation.
Dr Rowley expressed concern that under existing laws there is no obligation on financiers of political parties and candidates to make public their contributions. He also acknowledged that an incumbent government’s access to state resources before and during an election campaign period makes it possible to supplement a candidate’s resources with State resources.
“Madam Speaker, upon entering office as Prime Minister, I made a solid commitment to the people of this nation that Campaign Finance Reform legislation will be brought to the Parliament.
“Historically successive governments have only spoken on this issue of reform. Today, 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,” he said.
Dr Rowley is now held to account by his own words.
The 2020 election campaign is in full swing and there is no law to govern the funding of the parties seeking a mandate from the electorate less than a month from now.
In the 2015 general election, expenditure by the political parties topped $157 million. Although the Representation of the People Act limits each candidate to campaign spending of $50,000, no such limits are placed on parties. That is why since the 1980s, political campaigns have been becoming increasingly elaborate and expensive spectacles.
Well-funded parties, rather than those grounded in good policy and practical ideologies, seduce voters with elaborately staged rallies and meetings to gain their support.
It could be that the financiers backing these campaigns do so with the expectation of lucrative state contracts and other benefits from the Government they help put into office. It is time to put a stop to such arrangements.
T&T urgently needs a transparent political system under which candidates possess roughly equal resources and are required to disclose their campaign activity to the voting public. It is the only way to shift this country away from the undue influence of financiers and create a level playing field for the political parties contesting an election.
This country’s next government must put campaign finance reform at the top of its legislative agenda.