The need for campaign financing vs society’s need for transparency

The Case for Reform of Legislation governing Political Party Funding (PPF) and Election Campaign Financing (ECF)

Ladies and gentlemen, Trinidad and Tobago has a very proud record of successful election management. And while democracy is not only about elections, credible elections are a necessary component.

The stakes in an election are high because of the political consequences for the parties contesting these elections. Over time, we have seen more creative strategies being used by political parties to gain any advantage, which strategies require significant financial resources. At present there is no real or proper regulatory system in place for accountability in the acquisition or expenditure of these financial resources.

Where do parties obtain these large amounts of money to finance their operations and electioneering?  In the absence of state funding, parties are normally required to raise large amounts of money from individuals or corporate donors. Private donations however as we are all aware, open parties to the danger of undue influence from those financing those operations. Who pays the piper and all that.  It is a common theme with respect to elections around the world of financiers of parties having access to the corridors of power, influencing legislation, appointments to positions and of course award of contracts. So the danger is real and present.

Locally, the judgement in Real Time Systems Limited and Renraw Investments Limited in the High Court of Justice delivered in May this year should concern all citizens.  The extracts from the witness statements set out in the judgement are eye opening at the least.  I would recommend that you all have a look at that judgement and in particular the findings of the learned judge at paragraphs 44 and 45 of his judgement.  That case highlights better than anything I may say here as to the danger of unregulated campaign financing.

However, this is not to deny the need by political parties of financing to carry out their activities. Political parties have become essential for our system of governance and have valid financial requirements.

Transparency in regard to party funding helps to ensure that the electorate understands the influences under which politicians are likely to come when they are in government. It makes it much more difficult for parties to be influenced by external interests, reducing, the likelihood of undue influence and lessening the danger of patronage in public appointments and contracts.

Linked to the issue of transparency is that of limits on the external funding of parties and the prohibition of the use of state resources by the party in government. These concerns are directly linked to the issue of the credibility of elections as it distorts the playing field where one party (or two) crowd out all other voices in an election. Creating a level playing field in elections is widely recognised as a priority of the highest order for political finance regulation. This implies appropriate regulation and facilitation; thus, giving each party and candidate, an adequate opportunity to participate in a political forum and be able to put across their message.

The purpose of party and campaign funding regulation should therefore be both to prevent the undue influence of financiers and encourage a level playing field among the political parties contesting an election.

The key for a society therefore is to strike a balance between the need for financing by parties and society’s need for transparency, healthy competition and a level playing field. Any proposed financial regulation should be realistic. In that I mean, it should be implementable and not needlessly hinder competitive multi-party politics, or place unreasonable burdens on parties or candidates. Any regulation must take into account the realistic cost of funding campaign materials, services and advertising, while simultaneously addressing any areas of concern by the electorate in an open and transparent manner.

The most important element in regulating party and campaign funding relates to disclosure. The electorate needs to know how its political parties are financed and by whom and what commitments, if any, are being made, in accepting donations from wealthy supporters or companies. It is therefore imperative that there are strict rules requiring political parties and donors to acknowledge publicly, and disclose donations at least above a certain monetary value.

In order for the authorities to effectively regulate spending, there should be a clear distinction and limits placed on the different types of expenditure with set rules applicable to them, as it relates to campaign expenses and general party expenses and third party spending and the candidates’ own private finances. Such rules must be applied fairly, by providing an effective independent enforcement mechanism that is capable of ensuring compliance.

Speech by Mr. Mark Ramkerrysingh, Chairman of the Election and Boundaries Commission, Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute (TTTI) Annual General Meeting, Thursday 8th November 2018, Port of Spain

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