Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Campaign finance reform vital


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