Campaign financing legislation being pursued – Ramjattan

Sheila Holder

Campaign financing legislation is actively being pursued and is a high priority for the Alliance for Change (AFC),  its Chairman Khemraj Ramjattan says.

“We are actively pursuing that. It is a piece of legislation that I am very much interested in,” Ramjattan said in response to questions posed by this newspaper on the issue at a press conference on Friday.

He pointed out that deceased founding member of the party, Sheila Holder, was very passionate about getting the legislation drafted and implemented and had “done a lot of work on that score.”

Ramjattan assured that Holder’s work and setting the pace for the implementation of campaign financing legislation was not done in vain. “All that work still remains and we support Campaign Financing Legislation, we support it,” he said.

Ramjattan’s statement in support of this legislation came after concerns were raised in the public that the AFC was backtracking on something that it had strongly supported. Furthermore, three years after it entered office there was no sign of efforts to prioritise it.

The AFC Chairman informed that it was only last Thursday that he had asked visiting Common wealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Secretary General Akbar Khan for help.

“I had asked for a draft Commonwealth campaign finance legislation. The CPA’s Secretary General, Mr. Akbar Khan, was here and he yesterday met us and indicated where we can get a number of these things, websites and so on, along with source material …and so on, Ramjattan stated.

“We are going to tap into those resources to ensure that we come up with a Campaign Financing Legislation that is modern enough to take care of all the concerns that you mentioned,” he added.

Transparency Institute Guyana Inc (TIGI) had sounded a call for the urgent reformulation of campaign financing legislation, saying that it will not only curb corruption but ensure that democracy reigns.

“Political financing legislation should no longer be withheld from Guyana. The enactment of such laws will deal a significant blow to the scourge of corruption,” TIGI said in column, published in the Stabroek News, in January of this year.

The column was based on the statements of Treasurer of the AFC and Minister of Business Dominic Gaskin, Minister of State Joseph Harmon and the Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo, who had spoken to this newspaper last September.

Gaskin had described campaign financing as a complex issue and one which will always be shrouded in secrecy, given the environment of victimisation and fear that currently exists. “…It is a very important discussion for us to have and which I personally would love for us to have… at the same time, I don’t see the environment for this to be properly implemented in Guyana. So I think it will be farcical for us to embark on something that has good intentions when all of us know that things will continue to happen the way they have always been done in the past,” he had told Stabroek News. He had admitted that his party had not engaged governing coalition partner APNU on the matter nor had it taken a position on it.

Asked if he didn’t believe that the AFC should push for the commencement of discussions given the Carter Center’s recommendation in favour of such legislation, Gaskin had said, “I don’t think necessarily that the Carter Center …the fact that something has been raised in that context, should be the rationale for it becoming a priority matter for the party but I do think, like I said, it is a discussion that should begin.”

Harmon, the APNU General Secretary, had made it clear that campaign financing is governed by the law and therefore “any changes in the law will require some levels of consultations as we do, not just within the parties but outside of the parties, because it is not the parties [alone] that are affected. There are other persons who may come up to form a party and will be affected by this law itself.”

‘Out of the red’

TIGI also used the comments of other key political figures to highlight the varying views given over the years and to stress the importance of the legislation.

According to TIGI, the enactment of reform legislation will give rise to new norms. “This includes norms for donating to political parties which is what political parties seem most concerned about,” the anti-corruption body said, while noting that whatever the consequences of this for political parties, the state and the citizens will benefit and democracy will be enhanced.

“This will however require political will and commitment to transparency and accountability. In fact, for the APNU+AFC coalition government and President [David] Granger himself, enactment of political financing legislation is a matter of accountability against their promises while campaigning and even subsequently,” TIGI posited.

The body also called upon the parliamentary opposition PPP/C to do more than continue the “lip service” that politicians have given over time on this matter. “From its position in the opposition, the PPP/C needs to become a champion of political financing legislation and not wait for proposals to endorse,” TIGI wrote.

The Carter Center, following the 2015 general elections, had recommended that campaign financing legislation be updated and strengthened.

Campaign financing laws, requiring disclosures of donors to parties during an election period and strict record keeping, are seen as pivotal in fighting corruption in countries like Guyana.

And while the AFC on Friday would not go into detail of its own financial status, the party’s Chairman declared that it was no longer indebted. “We are out of the red. That is as much as we can tell you,” Ramjattan said even as AFC Executive and Minister of Public Telecommunications Catherine Hughes sounded a call for donations.  “We are looking for donations so donations are welcomed, especially from the media,” Hughes said.

The AFC has said that it spent close to $400M on the 2015 General and Regional Elections.

In January, TIGI stressed that the lack of political financing legislation in Guyana is a “glaring impediment to addressing corruption in government.” It was pointed out that the now deceased former AFC Vice-Chair  Holder was outspoken about the issue and had also moved a motion in Parliament in 2011 to implement political financing legislation to place focus on the use of state resources for campaigning. With regards to the motion, it was recalled that the PPP/C parliamentarians voted to alter the wording and send it to a select committee, which ultimately was “the end of that motion.”

TIGI also pointed out numerous cases where politicians have spoken about the need for this type of legislation but stopped short of ensuring the matter was addressed.

“Political parties and politicians have over time managed to convey recognition of the need for and value of political financing legislation while consistently avoiding responsibility for addressing the matter substantively,” it wrote.

It reminded that prior to the 2015 General Elections, the APNU+AFC had committed to enacting political financing legislation. “In April 2016, President Granger of the APNU+AFC coalition reaffirmed his commitment and promised to enact political financing legislation before the 2020 general elections… However, an October 17, 2016 report on information from the Attorney General …indicated that political financing was not on the legislative agenda in that year thereby contradicting Minister (David) Patterson’s (General Secretary of the AFC) prior indication and shrouding the President’s commitment in doubt,” it was stated. TIGI added that Harmon’s more recent avoidance of the question of priority and Gaskin’s clear indication that issues such as political financing are “high-minded initiatives” which Guyana is not yet ready to pursue and furthermore that “nobody sees it as a problem”  appear to signal further postponement of such laws by the government.

TIGI said that in the past politicians on both sides of the House had spoken of the issue as though it lacked importance. It was pointed out that Jagdeo, while holding presidential office, had pronounced on the matter, stating that he was supportive of the call for campaign financing reform though he cautioned that the model adopted should ensure a level playing field. “The PPP/C, however, ultimately did not enact political financing laws in its two decades in the seat of government. This raises some doubt about its commitment to such legislation even though Mr.  Jagdeo, the party’s leader, proclaimed recently that the PPP/C is prepared to support the government on the issue of enacting political financing laws,” TIGI said.

According to TIGI, if political parties are indeed avoiding the issue of political financing because of what they stand to lose in terms of corporate and other donations to their accounts, they should consider what this means. “Political parties and politicians must remain cognisant that once they access the seat of government, they have become “officers” of the state and are obligated to govern in the interest of the state. Parties in opposition that sit in parliament are also in service of the state which is a higher calling than their partisan interest. When party interest in what they can gain or lose determines either the supplying or withholding of state actions that would benefit the state, corruption is afoot,” TIGI said.

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