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Uneven playing field

The Bahamas has been “severely influenced” by money in politics for over 100 years, and it’s about time somebody does something about it.

That statement was made a dozen years ago by former attorney general the late Paul L. Adderley, who co-chaired the Constitutional Review Commission established under the first Christie administration.

“We’re trying to do something about the influence that rich men can have or try to have over politicians. Don’t let us fool around with this one in terms of what we’re trying to do,” Adderley told us at the time.

His commission recommended that Parliament prescribe controls and limits over donations to political parties, candidates and political campaign expenditure to ensure transparency and accountability in local and national elections and fairness in referenda.

But the issue was discussed long before that 2006 recommendation, which went nowhere.

More than three decades ago, a bill to govern money in politics was drafted under the Pindling administration.

The comprehensive proposed act “to make provision for the registration of political parties; for the regulation and control of political contributions; for the public funding of elections and for other purposes incidental thereto and connected therewith” never made it to Parliament.

The issue surfaced again last week when the House of Assembly debated the Non-Profit Organisations Bill.

The overriding objective of this bill is to provide for regulation to ensure that non-profit organizations are operating in a transparent manner and are not engaged in activities, which constitute an identified risk as defined in the Proceeds of Crime Act, Chapter 92, namely activities involved in corruption, cybercrime, human trafficking, money laundering, financing of terrorism or proliferation or financing of weapons of mass destruction, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest explained during the debate.

It is one of the bills intended to bring The Bahamas in line with rules set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU), which have threatened to blacklist the country.

During the debate, Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper said it is troubling that the “government seeks such deep insight into non-profits like churches, lodges and fraternities, but does not seek to have political parties subject to the same disclosure.”

Political will

The truth is, no previous administration has had any political will to address the issue of money in politics.

Cooper is new to frontline politics, but his party promised multiple times to bring legislation to regulate campaign contributions.

In its campaign document “Our Plan”, released ahead of the 2002 general election, the PLP pledged to bring legislation to address the issue.

“We believe it goes to the question of ensuring that there’s integrity in the process,” said Raynard Rigby in 2006, when he was chairman of the party, “ensuring that there is accountability, and at the end of the day ensuring that we maintain a system of election that is always fair and transparent”.

Again, the PLP did nothing to address the issue.

After the 2007 general election, when the party suffered an embarrassing defeat, then party leader Perry Christie claimed the reason for the loss was that the Free National Movement (FNM) had outspent the PLP.

Ever delusional, Christie believed that money was the main reason the tide turned against the PLP.

Of course, its post election report, which it tried to keep buried, listed other reasons, including Christie’s perceived weak leadership, for the loss.

On the morning of May 10, 2017, as he had done so many other times, Christie again pledged that the PLP administration would address the issue of money in politics through regulations.

Speaking to reporters on his last day in office, he said, “It is for me quite a surprise to see the millions of dollars that have poured into advertising for and on behalf of the opposition party.

“We hope that we have survived it. And if we have, we hope that the result will be changes to our rules and regulations and will minimize the extent to which we are able to have, whether for or against, the level of foreign intrusion.”

We are happy we no longer have to listen to Christie make his empty promises.

During his time in office, there were multiple controversies that arose that suggested a need for the regulation of political contributions. He talked a lot about regulating money in politics, but did nothing about it.

Way back in 2004, during his first administration when a firestorm erupted over campaign financing and claims made by businessman Mohammed Harajchi, Christie promised he would provide a full and accurate accounting of Harajchi’s donations to the PLP. Of course, he never did.

In his last term, the issue arose again after controversial Lyford Cay resident Peter Nygard claimed to be a major financial backer of the PLP. Several PLP Cabinet ministers were caught on camera gleefully visiting Nygard’s estate shortly after the 2012 general election. Another video showed Nygard declaring “we got our country back” on the night of the 2012 general election.

Many Bahamians were offended by Nygard’s involvement with the PLP. Christie ignored these concerns.

The matter of regulating campaign finances was not taken up by the Ingraham administration either.

When he was prime minister, Hubert Ingraham said he did not believe that campaign financing laws were necessary, adding that government cannot legislate honesty.

“The campaign finance laws are very ineffective,” he said in 2011.

“What they spend on elections in the U.S. is unbelievable, and they have campaign finance laws. You cannot legislate honesty. The dishonest will be dishonest no matter what you do. That’s why people still murder other people even thought the law says, ‘thou should not kill.’”

 Lifting the veil

Ahead of the 2017 general election and upon coming to office last year, the FNM under Dr. Hubert Minnis committed to regulating campaign financing.

The government has promised to “amend the Public Disclosure Act to broaden the scope of application to include campaign finance reforms and to make provisions for the direct referral to an independent prosecutor”.

In its first 18 months, the Minnis administration has been busy addressing other matters, including the threat of blacklisting.

Although the government has delayed the final passage of the nonprofit bill, nonprofits will be subjected to stringent requirements. The legislation mandates that each organization register with the government and provide, among other things, evidence of its gross annual income, the identities of its members and evidence of know your customer compliance. The bill also mandates each non-profit organization (NPO) report donations of $50,000 or more as well as its 10 largest donations.

While Minnis has said regulating money going to political parties is still a pledge his government intends to fulfill, it was also clear from his statement last week that it is not a priority.

Minnis seemed to suggest that while his government still wants to pass legislation this term, it would take another term for it to take effect.

“My five years ain’t up yet, and you [will] promise me another five years,” he said arrogantly.

“So I have five years to put in the campaign finance reform, and I have another five years for you to see it working properly.”

Such legislation is likely to be complex and controversial, especially if it is introduced close to an election. It should not be debated during a time of heightened political tension.

It is quite telling that churches and other nonprofit organizations will be held to strict standards regarding their donors while political parties and politicians in The Bahamas can continue to accept money anonymously in any amount.

In this matter, the playing field is far from leveled.

It really is not in the interest of politicians and political parties to report the sources of their funding, although such reporting would be beneficial in the quest for honest and transparent governance.

Big money is spent to win elections in The Bahamas. Some politicians for sure do not want to risk the sources of some of their donations drying up, should the veil of anonymity be lifted.

Over years, both major political parties have accused each other of being swayed by wealthy donors.

But the PLP and the FNM both live in glass houses when it comes to campaign contributions, as noted in a 2003 cable by a U.S. diplomat.

“As one Cabinet minister observed, there are no controls or limits, other than the conscience of the politician,” the diplomat wrote.

“In addition, money can come from any source, including international donors.”

The cable said millions of dollars were obtained from “questionable sources” in the 2002 campaign.

Sixteen years after that election, we still do not know who is funding parties that ultimately become the government of The Bahamas. We also do not know whether such funding influences government’s decision-making, though we suspect that years after Paul Adderley’s comments on the matter, The Bahamas is still being severely influenced by money in politics.

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