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Any limit to campaign financing?

By Dana Seetahal

The Tobago House of Assembly election having ended with a clean sweep for the People's National Movement (PNM), many persons are busy analysing the reasons behind the apparent turning away of the electorate in Tobago from the Partnership. One matter however that appears to have escaped attention is the phenomenal amount of money spent in this election. From all accounts, vast sums were expended by both sides to secure the votes of the electorate. This obviously raises the question whether there is any limit to campaign spending and financing in this country.

The law

The Representation of the People Act contains some provisions for what is termed "Election Expenses". The act, first of all, requires that in general all payments for election should be funnelled through the election agent or the candidate. Section 47 clearly states: "No expenses shall, with a view to promoting or procuring the election of a candidate at an election, be incurred by any person other than the candidate, his election agent and persons authorised in writing by the election agent on account—

(a) of holding public meetings or organising any public display;

(b) of issuing advertisements, circulars or publications; or;

(c) of otherwise presenting to the electors the candidate or his views or the extent or nature of his backing or disparaging another candidate."

Strangely, the act says this limitation does not apply to any expenses incurred "in the holding of any meeting to disseminate political information or to promote the principles of a political party or a political or other association in cultivating the goodwill of a constituency".

Since most political meetings can be said to fall under this exception, it appears that election expenses may be incurred by anyone in the run-up to an election. Further, the limitation does not apply to the publication of any matter relating to the election in a newspaper or other periodical.

In so far as expenses by the candidate or his agent are concerned, the act, at Section 48, sets a limit of $25,000 for expenses, other than the candidate's personal expenses and his deposit. Section 48(1): "No sum shall be paid and no expenses shall be incurred by a candidate at an election or by his election agent whether before, during or after an election on account of or in respect of the conduct or management of an election in excess of the amount of... twenty-five thousand dollars in the case of a Municipal Council or the Tobago House of Assembly election."

The effect

What is the effect of all of this? First of all, the only limitation on spending is on the candidate and his election agent. Outside of the candidate's personal expenses and his deposit payment on filing his nomination papers, there is a limit to spending of $25,000 on a campaign of any one candidate in an election. Although expenses may be incurred by other "persons authorised in writing" for holding and organising meetings, advertisements and other ways of presenting the candidate, there appears to be no limit to the spending by these persons under the act. So once a person is authorised by the candidate's agent, he can spend what he likes on ads and the like. There is no limit.

Further, anyone (other than a candidate or his agent) may spend any amount of money on any publication in a newspaper or other periodical "on any matter relating" to the election. Once it is not a clear advertisement, no authorisation is needed and there is no limit to spending. Thus, a person may promote a candidate under the guise of, for example, personally presenting his views on another candidate and that appears to be permissible. Anyone may also spend any sum of money to hold a meeting "to disseminate political information" or promote the principles of a particular political party. There is no limit set for spending on this.

It is clear that in this last election, substantial sums of money were expended on advertisements alone. Day in, day out you heard them on the prime radio stations and television stations and saw full-page ads in the newspapers. Since the total limit for such spending by a candidate or his agent is $25,000 and the cost of these ads must have been far in excess, it would follow that expenses related to promoting any particular candidate must have been incurred by persons authorised by the candidate or his agent.

Ads

What if the ads are in relation to a party, as in "Vote PNP"? Under the law, there seems to be no limit to the expenditure. In essence, therefore, whatever limits to campaign spending there are in our law, it seems they are restricted only to limits in spending by a particular candidate in promoting himself.

In this last election, we saw not only a deluge of ads and paid political broadcasts, but also a proliferation of T-shirts, stickers and even vehicles of one side or the other taking the message. At political meetings where the sound systems and music could outdo an all-inclusive fete, we now have prime entertainment—which obviously does not come free.

So what is the end result? We have persons who boldfacedly claim to be "party financiers"—which is what they are—and often to the tune of millions of dollars. No doubt they may be spending their money partially for love of their party; but human nature being what it is, the primary motive must be for some return.

This, then, is the danger of uncontrolled campaign financing as currently exists in this country. When a party assumes power following an election, in particular a general election, there is already a line of persons waiting for payback.

• Dana Seetahal is a former

independent senator.

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