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Campaign finance reform vital

By Basil Ince

NOT much sense can be made of the
numbers 7, 9, 18, and 24 except to
say that they look like good ones
for inclusion in a Lotto Plus. They,
however, made sense to our colonial masters
for it was their way of allocating elected
member seats to government-dominated
legislatures to bring us to self-government
gradually, or in their view, until we were
ready. Never for a moment should it be
thought that our overlords were solitary
voices in the wilderness since they were
ably supported by local institutions and
prominent individuals who regarded the
circumscribed electorate as “unfit for representation”
in our first election in 1925.
At that time only six per cent of the people
were eligible to vote as the others were unable
to meet the stringent property, tax,
and salary qualifications.
More than 20 years were to pass before
the Crown Colony of Trinidad and Tobago
could hold its first elections under
universal adult suffrage, attained in 1944.
The franchise committee which recommended
this constitutional advance was
by no means unanimous, voting 12 to 9.
One member opined that it was “simply illogical
to pass from one extreme to another
without any practical experience.” As late
as 1938, the number of elected members
had inched its way up to nine.
In other words, while it is true that the
country’s evolution to independence was
free of the bloodshed and turmoil associated
with some countries seeking sovereignty
over their affairs, most T&T legislators
were not simply resting on their oars
awaiting the day of deliverance. Although
by this period Trinidad and Tobago was regarded
as a “terminal colonial democracy,”
the effort exerted by our leaders was not
insubstantial.
It is in this context that we must not
take the one-man one-vote status for granted
since although it may not represent total
democracy, it does leave the door ajar
for democracy itself.
The influx of money in our elections,
if it were to remain unchecked,
would make a mockery of the oneman
one-vote principle. The recent
four-to-one money advantage of the governing
coalition over the opposition party
in the Tobago elections is ample evidence.
No one would doubt that when the PNM
was in government a similar disparity occurred.
This piece does not take the untenable
position that appears virtually every
day on the blogs and in letters in the press
that “they did it so we can do it too.” Even
for staunch party supporters this position
lacks a moral compass. It reeks of the scent
that politics has its own morality. Instead
of starting from the position of right or
wrong in accordance with the tenets of
democracy, too many party adherents take
their party’s position as the starting point
in deciding to support or not support an issue
or policy. All cogent arguments fall by
the wayside. There is no iron law that party
interests mean good governance.
The one-man one-vote principle is vitiated
when large sums of money find their
way into the coffers of political parties either
by donors or organisations. It is not
unusual that some large donors and organisations
remain unnamed thereby making
transparency impossible. When the names
of donors are known there is an attempt
to curb their habit. In 2006 when a report
noted that British political parties were
too dependent on a handful of wealthy donors,
reform proposals sprung up immediately
to cap donations under 50,000 pounds
sterling. In the United States it has been a
Sisyphean task to bring about campaign
finance reform. Both political parties say
they want it but in effect block any such
attempt at reform in Congress. The US
Supreme Court has jumped into the act
in the now famous (or infamous) case of
Citizen United v FEC which has eviscerated
further attempts at campaign reform
by making free speech the touchstone for
unlimited spending.
The situation is virtually the same in
T&T. Campaign finance reform is like
motherhood here.
No political party dares to speak
out against it. Although recognising
the need for campaign finance
reform in 2007, former prime minister
Manning made no effort to bring the
legislation before Parliament. Ditto for the
current government. A government minister
said that the Attorney General and the
Prime Minister would decide when legislation
would come to Parliament. Don’t hold
your one-vote breath. Big money by donors,
called financiers here, and businesses, are
able to buy votes by the hundreds and make
the path to decision makers smooth. Businesses
hedge their bets. Sometimes they
donate to both parties, just in case.
The T&T branch of Transparency International
must be congratulated for placing
campaign finance in the public domain so
voters will be more aware of the devaluation
of their vote. This awareness will
hopefully lead to campaign finance reform.
•Basil Ince is a retired
professor of political science
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