Let's, at least, talk about political campaign financing regulations
It's a pity that Dominica's civil society appears to be unconcerned about the lack of campaign financing legislation here and the impact that the availability of mountains of money, especially by a single party, can have on a general election. We have heard Lennox Linton of the Opposition United Workers Party (UWP) mention the issue of campaign financing in one his press conferences but it was more like an after- thought. Apparently, there are other more important fish to fry.
As we said in an earlier editorial, after the December 2009 general elections, opposition parties in particular raised the issue of electoral reform and have stressed the absolute need for a better system of conducting general elections.
But although we suggested then that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and the Parliament of Dominica must move hastily to do something positive about electoral reform, especially campaign financing, if we are to avoid anarchy, bloodshed and strife in the not-too-distant future, we did not expect results in that regard. Some skeptical persons even opined that for the Dominica Labour Party to take campaign financing legislation to parliament would be similar to a footballer shooting in his your own goal because the DLP has, by far, the largest budget for campaigning.
But this person as well as other commentators who have been clamoring for equal access to state-owned media, a clean voters' list and voter identification cards, have apparently forgotten the insidious issue of the funding of political campaigns.
In a brilliant speech delivered a few years ago at the Garraway Hotel, Mia Motley, the former Attorney General of the Barbados government and Leader of the Opposition in Barbados, stressed the need for States to cover the cost of democracy which includes the conduct of elections at party and state levels. This, we believe, is rather idealistic and is definitely impractical in struggling economies such as Dominica's. But we take the point: the promotion and maintenance of democracy is the responsibility of the State.
According to Motley, the threat posed to democracy by illegal and unregulated financing of political campaigns is a real and present danger. In her speech she quoted United States President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt who said, in October 1936: "We know now that government by organised money is just as dangerous as Government by organised mob".
That view that money tends to corrupt the political process is also described by Wellington Ramos of Belize who wrote in the Caribbean Net News that "Two of the most dangerous things that can happen to our democracy is to allow people with money to pay our citizens to vote for them to assume office and for people with money to use their funds to run for office even though they are not capable and competent to carry out the duties of the office they seek".
Ramos further argues that where there are no restrictions and limits on campaign financing, states risk having a system where unqualified rich people are able to run for office and poor qualified people who run for office are unable to win as the quality of campaigning is hindered by the lack of funding. In circumstances where campaigns organised by poor people are funded by the rich, the officials that are elected will become puppets or stooges of the rich, he theorises.
There is no doubt that money and politics are inseparable twin brothers. Money determines who runs, who wins and ultimately how they govern. Almost everyone who witnessed political campaigns here will attest to the fact that it takes large amounts of money to run these events. Over the past ten years, for instance, the two major political parties spent tens of millions of dollars on bill boards; radio, television and newspaper advertising; the busing of supporters to mass rallies, that now resemble massive fetes; paying air tickets for persons from the Diaspora to travel here to vote, and on the on-the-ground campaigning from house to house and village to village. In fact we believe that spending for the 2009 campaign may have been the most expensive election campaign ever held in Dominica. Unconfirmed reports indicated the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) alone spent more than EC$20 million on that campaign. We expect the upcoming campaign to be even costlier and no one knows the source of all that money.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that money is essential to win elections and the last US Presidential election is a prime example. Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America, no matter how well-organised and executed his campaign, would not have won the first election without the massive contributions that he collected. According to OpenSecrets. org, an organisation which is devoted to such issues, Obama's victory was aided by his tremendous fundraising success. He raised a staggering US$640 million because he did not accept public financing and thus he avoided the placing of limits on spending that are imposed when a candidate uses tax payers' money. We note also that Obama had disclosed the source of ninety percent of the contributions by the date that OpenSecrets. org published the report.
By comparison, hell would probably have to freeze over before any political party in Dominica publishes its source of funding. Do you recall Prime Minister Skerrit's "not your damn business" reaction when he was questioned about his party's funding during the 2005 general elections? Would Prime Minister Skerrit offer a similar response if he is asked to disclose the source of the DLP finances for the new political campaign?
Since we always seem to be mimicking developed countries, you can rest assured that the issue of campaign financing will germinate in the Caribbean within the next few years. In fact in July, 2010 the Jamaica Observer reported that the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), in a ground-breaking achievement, has agreed on what should be the cap on the amount of money individuals or groups can contribute to the operations of political parties. The proposal which is intended to eliminate the practice of big donors receiving special favours when their party gains power, is among a raft of recommendations of a report on the registration and financing of political parties, that has been signed off on by ECJ members.
Jamaica is the latest Western country to take that important step of introducing legislation to control some aspect of campaign financing such as State funding, mandatory disclosure and the imposition of limits on expenditure. These countries realise that in the absence of laws there will be no control on the inflow of funds from illegal sources and money will be used to influence elections in a way that is detrimental to the public interest.
We therefore suggest that in the interest of good and accountable government, Dominica must define the permissible sources of funds for political parties, place a limit on expenditure for advertising during election campaigns, and demand some level of disclosure of political party financing. If those laws are not enacted, and enforced, the political culture of corruption will continue, citizens' faith and confidence in their elected officials will decline further and the public will, understandably, be unwilling to participate in the process of nation building.