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PURELY POLITICAL: Pressed for campaign cash

Albert Brandford

PURELY POLITICAL: Pressed for campaign cash

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As both parties, and perhaps other smaller groups, independent politicians and political activists, take to the hustings in their efforts to highlight whose programmes are better to carry the island forward, it will be a costly exercise for both individual candidates and the parties.
Given what political leaders have said in the past, the parties can be left in a precarious financial situation following an election. It raises the question: Who will foot the bill? – DAILY NATION Editorial, September 10.
Financing an election in a recession – where will the money come from?
Sounds as if it could come from a paper a political science student is asked to write.
Yet, mere months before a general election in Barbados is constitutionally due, the question is not some academic exercise; rather, it is the stark reality facing the two major political parties.
It has been acknowledged by representatives of the parties that in previous years both had been the recipients of campaign funds from corporate Barbados and wealthy well-wishers.
But with the economy still in recession and corporate Barbados holding on to its cash, given the uncertainty of the future, the political parties will be hard-pressed to persuade the captains of industry and commerce to part with the type of money needed to fund increasingly expensive election campaigns.
Indeed, corporate sponsorship, where it has not gone into retreat, has been barely holding the line as community organizers and even sports promoters have found out to their chagrin.
It has not gone unnoticed, for example, that the highly touted and very successful LIME Pelican Football Challenge tournament which began last year with unprecedented prize money of $100 000, has been able to add two new teams to the line-up and the further attraction of the highly fancied footballers from the Barbados Defence Force Sports Programme, but the prize money has remained the same.
Some people have been asking whether, in the economic circumstances where money is tight and every cent of the goodwill spend is under even more careful scrutiny, the organizers have been unable to attract other sponsors and a greater contribution from those already on board.
It may very well turn out to be a signal from the so-called bean counters to the political parties that have traditionally relied on financing from certain companies that the money spigot has been turned backwards a notch or two and that they may have to look elsewhere for campaign funds.
Certainly, the once deep pockets of the likes of the regional conglomerate CLICO have gone and the monied industrialists and construction magnates are likely to be more circumspect in their strategic allocation of contributions to the parties.
Many of us were not surprised, therefore, when it was being bandied about in political circles that among the Dems alleged to be “brekking for themselves”, some have already struck up an alliance with one of the more powerful privately owned companies which has benefited from Government’s generosity and moved to secure individual financing for the battle ahead, leaving the party to fend for itself.
It should mean that if lessons are so tight for the ruling party, then they might be doubly so for the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP), whose strongest fund-raising suit may be the performance of the Government over the past four years and the promise of better to come.
But is all of that really true? Certainly, the BLP will face challenges to secure the financing to mount the type of campaign it will need to topple the Freundel Stuart-led Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and it will have to try tapping the same increasingly reluctant sources.
So where will these monies come from? External sources? Conglomerates and other big companies hedging their bets?
Some eyebrows were raised this past week when the Opposition suggested that Government may be planning to access the $36 million sitting down in the Catastrophe Fund set up by the BLP a few years ago to assist low-income earners who may be affected by disasters, and use it as an election slush fund.
A recent amendment to the legislation would allow for the Urban and Rural Development Commissions to be reimbursed for any work done on houses they provide, instead of the grants going directly to the homeowners.
It may very well be a case of the BLP being afraid that it could be hoist on its own petard if these two scandal-ridden agencies are used against them in the upcoming general election campaign.
This again raises the question of the state’s role, if any, in the financing of elections.
As the Editorial cited at the top of this column said, in a call for campaign financing reform, there are several issues surrounding the issue.
Should the state fund political parties and campaigns or should there be a match of public and private funds?
Should private companies and individuals who contribute to political parties be publicly listed?
Should we limit contributions from outside the island?
Should there be specific guidelines on the use of campaign funds and expenditure limits?
These issues have not been settled across the world, and they are still evolving in the big democracies such as Britain and the United States where legislation and the rules appear to change according to the wishes of the monied forces behind both the liberal and conservative political parties and their leaders.
At present, we in Barbados operate under a system through which the state provides an annual subvention of $300 000 to be shared among the political parties which have a parliamentary presence, plus a staffed constituency office for each MP and a stipend of $750 (monthly).
Our reality means that both the DLP and the BLP can theoretically start their respective campaigns, which could cost each party up to $3 million, with a “nest egg” of $150 000.
I can already hear you asking, dear reader, a “nest egg? You call that a nest egg”? Really?
But that is really the extent of the state’s involvement in the financing of political parties, and by extension, their campaigns.
Of course, there is legal provision for other contributions – money or equivalent – that go to individual candidates, but they have to be accounted for in a statement detailing expenses incurred and the names of the people from whom they were received, and an unaudited report of that goes to the Management Commission of Parliament.
Clearly, our campaign financing process, too, is still slowly evolving, ver-r-ry slowly, but evolving it is.
As the leader writer said, while many promises will be made by the political parties, “there is one request that the electorate must make of both political parties and the individuals seeking political office. It is for a commitment to campaign financing reform, which is fundamental to good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability which are key to strengthening our democracy”.
Transparency in these matters is a key element.
Barbadians must not be blinded by the rhetoric of our politicians and be ever vigilant for any attempts at the obfuscation of the substance of legislation or what has been termed elsewhere as the “misdirection” on the use of public funds.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.