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EBC head: Bite the bullet on campaign reform

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) chairman Dr Norbert Masson has urged the country’s political parties to “bite the bullet” and to begin the process to frame and enact legislation to begin party campaign reform as well party registration. 



Masson, one of the four guest speakers at the opening of a symposium on the registration and funding of political parties held on Wednesday at the Queen’s Park Oval’s Century Ballroom, Port-of-Spain, told the political leaders, “Dare to go where no other government has gone before…bite the bullet.” He noted repeated attempts to have legislation developed and enacted (in 2006 Ganga Singh brought a motion to Parliament; Prof Ramesh Deosaran did so in 2009; and in 2011 the EBC made recommendations). 



Masson said he had confidence, however, after Independent senator Helen Drayton brought a motion in the Senate on November 26. Piloting her motion, Drayton said $300 million had been spent on campaigns between May 2010 and now. Masson along with vice-chair of the T&T Transparency Institute (TTTI) Dion Abdool, UN resident co-ordinator and UNDP representative Richard Blewitt, and Canadian High Commissioner Gerard Latulippe all spoke of the importance of legislation for campaign funding reform in a democratic society. 


The issue, the various speakers noted, was not unique to T&T but a global matter. The symposium was a joint initiative among the EBC, UN, the UN office on drugs and crime and the Canadian High Commission. In his address to the audience, which included Drayton, Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar, Minister of Food Production Devant Maharaj, and Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon, Masson called for not only campaign financing and party funding to be addressed but also party registration.


“Of the processes to which I have just referred, those in T&T which include election laws, do not meet best-practice criteria or benchmarks, most conspicuously on two grounds, registration or political parties and oversight of campaign financing.” 



Masson said the Organization of American States (OAS) had developed model legislation to address the matter and had assisted countries in the region and Latin America to improve the quality of their electoral management processes. He highlighted the organisation’s success in helping countries such as Panama, Peru and Costa Rica address matters such as the registration of voters, political parties, and electoral logistics. 


He described current legislative conditions in T&T as rudimentary in the case of registration of political parties and “a dead letter” in the case of campaign financing. Although the matters have been discussed in the region, he said the region was still one of the few in the world without legislation. 


Many might be surprised to know that no definition existed for a political party in the Constitution. He said all that was necessary was a letter to the commission declaring that one was the leader of a party and applying for a symbol for it. Only the symbol is registered. Political parties were corporate bodies—a business. He said it should be necessary for parties to meet certain requirements before being registered, for example having a constitution. 


T&T, he said, was a typical example of a Westminster-model country where there was an absence of any public subvention to political parties and provisions for disclosure of funding were limited to the submission of statements of campaign expenditure. He said from research done partly by the commission’s communications staff, it was estimated that approximately $25 million was spent on TV, radio and print campaigns in the 2007 general election and that figure had grown considerably since then. 


The Law Commission since 2000 asked for public consultation on party registration and financing. Though late, he said, such a consultation began on Thursday. “This is a start,” he said. Masson also said the symposium marked an important watershed in the evolution of the EBC.


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