Yet again, campaign finance reform has been left by the wayside. Historic legislation was tabled by the Prime Minister in May, sent to a committee and has now lapsed with the dissolution of Parliament.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi assures the bill will come back if the PNM is returned to office. So the issue of campaign finance is now itself a campaign issue subject to finance. The irony.
Be that as it may, there is no denying such reform, alongside the implementation of public procurement legislation, is key to ensuring businesses function in a free and fair environment.
Reform is needed not only to give smaller parties an even playing field, but also to afford a degree of transparency that discourages sleaze in public contracts.
We need governments not to abuse office in order to safeguard our democracy, but equally competition and innovation can only flourish if vested interests do not latch on to the State’s coffers through illicit means.
The pandemic has wrought changes to the election campaign this time around, though it has not eliminated the concerns over the extent of spending, the lack of transparency and the problematic co-mingling of state and private resources.
Every election features the same concerns: an incumbent administration, by virtue of the power and access afforded to government, is often felt to have an unfair advantage. This could come through issues surrounding broadcast concessions, the distribution of social grants and relief, the paving of roads, the opening of facilities, the handing over of housing units. Covid19 has changed so much, yet still so little.
Too often we have been rocked by scandals featuring party financiers. This has affected all sides, whether through sophisticated allegations relating to share transfers, or the classic bid-rigging allegations surrounding mega-projects.
The current law limits spending by a candidate to a mere $50,000. Many loopholes in the law – untested in litigation – allow all sorts of rationalisations and justifications for the way parties do things, though this year all may have little choice but to scale down.
The malaise surrounding enforcement of the Integrity in Public Life Act also means it is doubly hard to follow the money. We see this not only in the paralysis that often surrounds oversight of public officials but also in the regular questions asked about individual politicians from time to time.
Where did so-and-so get their house? Was it really from planting garden? How is so-and-so able to spend so much on that latest gimmick? And so on.
Even Tobago has seen its share of this, particularly when attention is turned to make-work programmes administered under the Tobago House of Assembly.
The winner of the August 10 election needs to address campaign finance reform as a matter of priority, not leave it to the very last minute and then let it languish on the House floor.