We should know

Miguel Insulza

Trinidad and Tobago should not need the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States to admonish this country about the dangers to good government and to democracy posed by political funding. Miguel Insulza has been the latest high official to mount a bully pulpit on the subject, addressed to political parties and ruling administrations in the Caribbean.

Addressing a Barbados forum on “Strengthening Regulation of Political Parties and Political Financing Systems”, Insulza described action in this regard as “not only our duty but also our obligation”. His remarks suggested that regulation of political funding may be in danger of becoming a desired objective everyone talks about but nearly nobody does anything to achieve.

Increasingly, commentators and voices in all political parties, have expressed concern over the levels of political funding in a free-for-all T&T atmosphere of anything-goes. In its report on the November 2007 polls, the Elections and Boundaries Commission, referring to campaign advertising, described it as “an extravagance of financing”.

The commission noted that the “enormous expenditure” bore no relation to the pitifully small sums allowed under existing law.

“What is the source of the extravagant campaign financing?” the EBC asked.

The answer is one that everyone knows, but nobody knows for a certifiable fact. The answer is believed to lie in a de facto system that recognises political “investors” and party “financiers”, who fund campaign operations, confidently expecting returns in the form of government contracts and other lucrative benefits.

Certainly, the statute cited by the EBC in 2007 has not changed. But the amounts expended in political campaigns have risen sky-high, as in the light aeroplanes trailing party messages during the 2010 campaign.

Shortly after the high-spending Tobago House of Assembly elections, the Transparency Institute of T&T was reported expressing commitment to “lobby” not only for legislation but also for a system to oversee administration of tight new rules. Such work as is going on in the area is yet to appear in the form of a publicly released document, let alone as draft legislation.

Meanwhile, other elections — a by-election in Chaguanas West and local government elections — loom on the political horizon. Both exercises may be regarded as build-ups to the Test-match scale general election due in 2015.

It will be deeply disappointing if the 2015 elections were to be conducted under the all-permissive regime applicable to the 2010 elections. General Secretary Insulza’s warning that “money can introduce important distortions to the democratic process” resonates in a T&T which has lived what he calls the “underlying complex relationship between money and democracy”.

Toward bringing this “relationship” to the surface where it can be recognised and managed, Insulza’s distant urgings should help keep T&T’s eyes on the swinging ball of electoral and party funding.

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