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Raffique Shah


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Buying and selling government

By Raffique Shah
March 8, 2015

The bell has rung, the gates are open and the campaign for general elections 2015 is underway. Over the next six months, political parties that matter and those that don't will spend an estimated $300 million in a frenetic bid to be elected or re-elected to power. The stakes are high: by the end of this fiscal year, the incumbent administration will have spent $337 billion during its five years in office.

Yet, for all the griping and allegations that will fly fast and furious—who thief what, who bribed whom, who owns what party—the issue of campaign financing, of how parties fill their "war chests" to woo and hopefully win the election, remains on ice.

Sometime last year, following debate on a motion on campaign financing reform piloted by Independent Senator Helen Drayton, the Senate agreed to the establishment of a Joint Select Committee, and actually named a few members of the Upper House who would sit on it. Thereafter, the issue ought to have gone to the House of Representatives for the inclusion of members from that chamber.

As far as I know, that never happened. The status quo remains. Outdated legislation applies only to individual candidates' expenditure (I think the limit is $15,000). All candidates must submit returns to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) within a specified time after the polls. Most of them never bother to do so, and again, as far as I know, no one has ever faced action for not complying with this regulation.

So it's a jungle out there, financiers pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of their preferred party, and in many instances both main parties, thus ensuring that they (the financiers) cannot lose, matters not who wins.

I am convinced that on a per capita basis, campaign financing in this country is among the highest in the world. While the $300 million is a "guesstimate" by political analysts and no proper study of the issue has been conducted, when one person claimed that he had "lent" $30 million to UNC during the 2007 campaign and he sought to have the sum repaid, he let the cat out of the bag in a manner of speaking.

With big money having controlling interests in the elections, the masses who vote hardly realise that they are mere pawns in the power game. Sure, they get T-shirts, transport to meetings and rallies, sometimes food and drinks, and always party paraphernalia—horns, whistles and so on.

But once the elections are over and the winners take office and control of the Treasury, it is the financiers who benefit most, exacting good returns on their investments. Check it out. Whatever party is in power, the contractors who corner the big projects are but a handful. Mostly, this is so because they have the equipment and expertise for such jobs. Maybe a better indicator of how political investment pays off is to monitor the relatively unknown, small operators who morph into big conglomerates under a particular administration.

Now, I should add that I don't believe legislation on campaign financing would change the equation in favour of the masses, mainly because slick operators would learn how to circumvent the law. Hell, they run rings around Inland Revenue and the VAT administration, so why would they fear some new authority established to monitor campaign financing?

Besides, there is the age-old argument over the practicality of legislating for ethics, morality and integrity, all of which are encompassed in campaign financing. If the investors (financiers) are devoid of such qualities, and if the politicians have no qualms in receiving huge sums, some of which they may personally pocket, what law or regulation can convince or even coerce them into doing what is morally right?

There is an Integrity Commission established since the birth of the Republic in 1976. Its main function is "to ensure that persons in public life and persons exercising a public function comply with the laws governing integrity in the fulfilment of their duties and responsibilities to the people they serve."

Almost 40 years later, that Commission has not identified or charged or successfully prosecuted a single public official for breach of its regulations. Can we therefore deduce that every politician since, every state-appointed director, every senior public official who has served, has been of impeccable integrity? That all allegations of corruption, of nepotism or delinquency, were hollow, unfounded, pure mischief?

In other words, all our politicians and public officials were or are saints?

Gimme a break!

What this one example I cited tells us is that while we might legislate for the lofty qualities we expect to see in those who govern and officiate over us, we are fooling ourselves.

Over the next six months, as the election campaign intensifies, tens of millions of dollars will be used to mesmerise the masses. Already, state enterprises that have no need to advertise are splurging in the print and electronic media. Ministries, too, are ploughing taxpayers' money on froth. And it will get worse.

No law on abuse of State funds or transparency in campaign financing will deter the unconscionable from thinking they could buy power. Only an alert electorate can show the financiers and politicians who, really, is boss.

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