Campaign financing: A better way
By Philip C. Galanis
“We need real campaign finance reform to loosen the grip of special interests on politics." - Tom Daschle
Every five years around election time, incessant lip service is paid to campaign financing. It can only be lip service because after the ballots have been cast, counted and catalogued, the notion of campaign finance reform retires to hibernation – that is, until the next general election. Therefore, this week, we would like to Consider This…what practical approaches can we realistically take regarding how we finance political campaigns in The Bahamas?
Unquestionably, politics has become an extremely expensive exercise. When one considers the cost of political rallies, paraphernalia, including T-shirts and other garments now available, flags, posters, signage, printing of flyers, advertisements, including newspaper, radio and television broadcasts and commercials, the cost is staggering. Let’s not forget the direct cost of personnel employed by political parties; the cost of constituency offices, sometimes four or five, particularly in the Family Islands; the cost of electricity, water, and telephones; the cost of food and beverages; of political consultants; and the printing of party platforms. When these and other costs are considered, the real cost of staging a general election could very easily cost $250,000 per constituency or nearly $10 million per party. So how are political parties expected to finance such a mammoth undertaking?
Using the public purse
It has become commonplace for the government of the day to use the power of the public purse to significantly finance its party’s political campaign. We observed this practice when the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was in power; we witnessed it in the by-election in Elizabeth two years ago; and we are seeing it again in the current general election. While this has been a common practice, the Free National Movement (FNM) government seems to have taken this phenomenon to new heights.
Shortly after announcing the general election of 2012, the government launched a record contract signing marathon. The $12 million contract for the construction of a new clinic in North Abaco and a multimillion-dollar contract for a new hospital in Exuma are a few examples of this.
Last weekend, amidst great public fanfare at police headquarters, the prime minister awarded $1 million to charitable organizations. Ironically, this is the same government that – only one year earlier – reduced the government’s subvention to such organizations during the annual budget debate in the House of Assembly. This is the same government that discontinued the extremely effective YEAST program that provided a positive prototype for young Bahamian men at risk and the same government that canceled the effective and internationally celebrated urban renewal program established by the PLP.
No matter which party is in power, an intelligent and discerning public should look askance at the government of the day exploiting and abusing the public purse in order to win votes after elections have been called.
In The Bahamas, political campaigns are predominantly financed by contributions from persons, companies, and organizations that believe in the democratic process and want to ensure that the message of the political party that they support is widely and successfully disseminated.
In the absence of campaign finance laws, there are no restrictions on who can contribute to a political party and how much they can donate. Accordingly, anyone -- Bahamians and foreigners – can contribute any amount to anyone at any time without any accountability whatsoever. The real question that we must address for the future health of our democracy is whether this is a desirable practice?
It has become customary for political contributions to be made in private, sometimes on the condition of confidentiality and often in secrecy with only a select few members of the party knowledgeable regarding the source of the funds.
Campaign 2012 has seen a new development in political funding. During the last few mass rallies, the prime minister has publicly appealed from the podium for campaign contributions, describing it as a further deepening of our democracy by allowing the public to become investors in his party. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, it is unprecedented and uncharacteristic. We have never before seen this prime minister – or any other for that matter – beg for money from a public podium.
It therefore begs the question: why has he done so now, during what he says is his last campaign? He alluded to the answer to this question on Thursday past at a mass rally on R. M. Bailey Park when he said that he will not tolerate anyone in his Cabinet who has financially benefited from conflicts of interest.
We believe that he made this appeal for financial contributions because, while the FNM is still well-funded by those wealthy interest groups who support him in order to continue reaping his government’s largess, some of his traditional sources of funding are less generous than they have been in the past. This is possibly because he has cut some of his more financially well-connected candidates for reasons already stated and reiterated again from that podium last Thursday in a purposefully vague but very revealing way.
Campaign finance reform
Clearly, as the prime minister is opening party funding up to the masses in ways never seen before, the time has come to enact campaign financing legislation. There are several things that can be done in order to impose strict controls for campaign fund-raising, primarily to level the playing field and to minimize disparate levels of funding campaigns by the various political parties. Campaign financing legislation should also establish disclosure requirements with respect to funding and spending in elections.
Such a law could introduce statutory limits on contributions by individuals, organizations and companies, which would remove the influence of big money from politics and should also prohibit foreign influences from invading the local political process.
There should also be limits on large potential donors to prevent them from gaining extraordinary political access or favorable legislation or other concessions in return for their contributions. Campaign finance laws should also provide for the capping of such funding and for the disclosure of sources of campaign contributions and expenditures. It should also limit or prohibit government contractors from making contributions with respect to such elections.
Campaign financing legislation could even provide for matching funds by the government for all the candidates in order to ensure that the playing field truly is level and to enhance clean elections.
Finally, in order to more vigilantly protect the public purse, the law should strictly prohibit a government from signing any new contracts after general or by-elections are called.
Campaigns will become more expensive as time progresses. As we mature politically, we should seek to ensure that political parties operate on a level playing field and remove the barriers to participation in the democratic process because of a lack of funding. If we want to encourage the best and the brightest citizens to enter into the elective political arena, we should seek to eliminate the observation of U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton that: “Elections are more often bought than won”.
Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis & Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Apr 23, 2012