Sunday, December 4, 2011

Campaign finance reform deserves a place on the Bahamian political agenda... It is not a new idea, but it's one worth repeating as often as possible until something is done about it

Campaign finance reform

thenassauguardian editorial

In the House of Assembly recently, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham put MPs on notice that they are expected to submit public disclosure records for 2009 and 2010 in accordance with the Public Disclosure Act.

The prime minister also threatened to make public the list of MPs who have not yet done so. MPs,along with numerous other public officials, have until March 31 of each year to disclose their financial records for the previous calendar year. The last records made public were for the year 2007, and not all MPs disclosed that year.

It is up to the Public Disclosure Commission to make those records public. Senior public officers who fail to disclose, their and their immediate families' assets, interests and income could be subject to a $10,000 fine, up to two years in jail or both.

And where the offense involves the deliberate non-disclosure of the property of a senator or MP the court could order the property forfeited to the government.

While The Bahamas is well ahead of some of its regional counterparts in requiring individual public officers to disclose their financial records, it's time to take it one step further in the form of campaign finance regulations.

As it now stands, the financing of political campaigns in The Bahamas is considered an entirely private affair between party candidates and political parties and their contributors.

And it's apparent that there is no real political will to change that arrangement.

The idea to regulate campaign contributions has received a lukewarm response at best, and if raised at all often results in vague, empty promises.

In a democratic society, donating to a campaign is a right. Through a campaign donation an individual or group can show support and belief in a particular candidate or political party.

Political parties obviously need to raise funds. But the concern is that if left unregulated, donations from private sources, such as wealthy individuals, foreign investors or large companies can lead to undue influence on the political system, drowning out the interests of the poor and less powerful. There is also the very serious concern about tainted funds.

Election campaigns are an expensive venture. And while money does not ensure victory, lack of money will almost always mean defeat. The high cost of election paraphernalia and the long-time tradition of money in the hope of getting votes only exacerbate the situation.

Both Ingraham and Opposition Leader Perry Christie have commented publicly on the high cost of election campaigns.

The Ingraham administration recently fulfilled one of its key legislative promises when it tabled the long overdue Freedom of Information Bill. It did so as part of its pledge to promote greater transparency and accountability.

The governing party, opposition and all political organizations that one day hope to lead this country should all get behind campaign finance reform in a meaningful way.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to campaign finance reform. The context and political culture must be taken into account, and regulations should not hinder healthy competition. But no one would argue that the process should not be made more transparent. Legislation should be developed that regulates media policy, what donors are allowed to do, how much parties are allowed to spend, what they must disclose and to whom, and what meaningful penalties would be imposed for non-disclosure.

Campaign finance reform deserves a place on the political agenda. It is not a new idea, but it's one worth repeating as often as possible until something is done about it.

Dec 03, 2011

thenassauguardian editorial