RISE should build a consensus with the parties on the Select Committee report

Dear Editor,

I wish to comment on a letter appearing in Monday’s edition of the Stabroek News (February 26) under the heading ‘Minister Gaskin’s about-face on political financing laws’ and signed by eight persons “For RISE Guyana”.

Having read the letter, and having then revisited an earlier report carried in your newspaper on September 10, 2017 in which my comments on the issue of campaign financing laws were carried, I believe there are some gaps in the letter as it relates to what I am reported to have said. I should add that all of the comments attributed to me were made in response to direct questions put to me during a single impromptu telephone call from a Stabroek News reporter, and represent my own views rather than a party position.

Permit me to list a few excerpts from the report which I believe are at odds with the “about-face” assertion made by RISE.

1. While noting that the AFC does not profess to have all the answers, Gaskin told the Sunday Stabroek that the party generally tends to support best practices when it comes to governance matters. He said that transparency in campaign financing is very important in the context of democracy working and is not something that should be ignored.

2. He reiterated that Guyana needs to get to the stage where businesses and individuals can openly support political parties, whether financially or in other ways, “without it having an impact on their businesses or lives or anything else that they are doing, without any sort of fear of political victimization or loss of business.”

3. “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 done in the past,” Gaskin said.

4. Asked if he doesn’t believe that the AFC should push for the commencement of discussions given the Carter Center’s recommendation, Gaskin 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.”

Please note that I repeatedly stressed the importance of this issue and the need for public discussion. Nothing in my comments can be construed as trivializing this very serious matter. However, I do not believe that simply passing legislation will create an open and transparent process for funding election campaigns or financing political parties. If anything it is likely to compound the problem and create an even greater layer of secrecy.

In Guyana, we have gotten into the habit of passing legislation that is not supported by public education and understanding, sensible and practical regulations, and a proper implementation plan. This is probably why we find it difficult, in spite of legislation, to prevent routine unlawful practices that occur throughout our country.

I am also not convinced that secret donations to political parties are made primarily with a view to extracting political favours down the line. Far too many Guyanese are still fearful of being victimized because of their political affiliations. By failing to acknowledge fear as a factor in the reluctance of donors to openly support political parties or their campaigns, whether financially or otherwise, the writers display a limited grasp of the root cause of the problem they seek to address.

Yesterday’s letter quotes me as saying: “political parties also need to be careful about the positions that we may take on this matter because the lifeblood of any political party is, of course, attracting finances. Political parties have to be financially sustainable. It is not cheap to run a political party and therefore, even with the best intentions, if you make the sort of pronouncement that could cause potential supporters or donors to think twice before they give you donations, then you will be shooting yourself in the foot…”

This may be accurate, however, the full text of that particular quote continues as follows: “so, while we welcome consultations, whether or not that conversation needs to start with the AFC, is the first thing we would need to decide or to address or whether it is a conversation that should take place outside of the political parties in the first instance”.

If RISE feels strongly enough about this issue it needs to take its case to the public and build tangible support for a solution that reflects the true nature of the problem. It then needs to lobby the support of law-makers or policy-makers to effect the change it seeks to bring about. Simply attacking those who seem not to share their sense of urgency or priority will not bring about change.

The RISE letter also refers to a motion brought to the National Assembly in 2011 by the AFC for the implementation of political financing legislation. Indeed, in April of 2011, during the 9th Parliament, there was a motion moved by the late Sheila Holder of the AFC which called on the National Assembly to “recognise that a strong democracy requires healthy political parties, resources to sustain and operate a basic party structure capable of representing people, contributing creatively to public debate, and contesting elections, and that the role of money in politics undeniably influences the quality of democracy and governance”.

The motion also called on the government to present “to the National Assembly such relevant laws and regulations pertaining to political party campaign financing; curtail abuse of public resources by the incumbent leading up to and during elections as recommended by the Commonwealth Secretariat in order to create a level playing field for contesting parties at elections in Guyana”.

This motion depicts the multi-dimensional nature of the issue which obviously goes beyond transparency and the need for disclosure of party funders. It also predates the recommendations of the Carter Center Report by a number of years, an indication that Guyana is capable of more than simply reacting to the latest reports of international organizations.

Notwithstanding the support of the PNCR-1G party, the motion was debated and sent to Select Committee with its two resolve clauses amended to form the following single clause:

“That this National Assembly approves the establishment of a Special Select Committee to examine the existing laws and regulations regarding political parties’ electoral expenses, examine legislation in other countries relating to political party campaign financing and report its findings and recommendations for this National Assembly’s consideration”.

Sadly, Mrs Sheila Holder became ill and was unable to attend most of the Committee meetings. She passed away shortly after the final report was tabled and adopted in the National Assembly in September of 2011.

The report of the Committee did not make specific recommendations, rather it listed a number of “principles” which it felt should guide political parties’ campaign financing. The Committee also expressed the view that these principles should be the focus of further discussions in the 10th Parliament.

These discussions never took place. Perhaps RISE would wish to engage the parliamentary political parties in a more structured manner with a view to building consensus on the guiding principles outlined in the report of the Special Select Committee.

Yours faithfully,

Dominic Gaskin

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