Political Financing & The Public Interest


By M.K.

The paramount feature of a functioning democracy is that it has an effective system of checks and balances in place. This system ensures that government and public institutions are held accountable for decisions that they take and for the consequences of these decisions. In principle these must be in the national interest.

However, as governments come and go, we seem to see the same pattern persist, despite the electoral promises for remedial changes and doing things differently. The renewed pledges for the safeguarding of the public interest, transparency, meritocracy and competence soon give way to the old habits of anointing cronies, relatives, political sponsors and agents and so on. Raising of voices through the media and other forums soon seems to peter out as the government forges on regardless.

The scenario seems to be repeating itself. What should we make out of the Political Financing Bill, tabled by Government for its First Reading in Parliament, last Tuesday? Besides the legitimate question as to why the Government should come at this late hour with this Bill, some six months before the National Assembly will stand dissolved, – and that too without any guarantee that it will be voted given the unlikelihood of it being able to raise a majority of three-quarters in the Assembly – begs the overriding question: how will the new provisions of the proposed legislation promote the public interest? With the Government having dropped the idea of political financing by the State what is proposed instead is the continuation and indeed the consolidation of private sector financing of political parties, the more so given that the Bill does not prescribe any limit to the donations of the private sector.

We have said it earlier that ‘it is not only in Mauritius that there is concern about the politics-big business/wealth nexus which allows the tweaking of polices and decisions to the highest bidder. It would be naïve to assume that private sector funding of political parties and individual politicians would be based on altruistic motives. Although it is always difficult to prove the link between the financing received and the favourable policy/administrative decisions taken in the context of the so-called “business-friendly” environment, the sheer scale of spending that we see during the local political campaigns point to the invisible presence of private donors placing heavy bets on their horses’.

In simple language, corruption remains the true basis of the terms of trade in political financing. This system helps politicians in weaving a web of unaccountability as regards the financing of their real campaign expenditures and the monies that they pocket for personal purposes. It has been argued that we can eliminate this scourge and the parasitical opportunists by legislating that all political campaign funding should be by the State. Spending limits would and should in that case be prescribed and scrupulously observed by each candidate at the risk of invalidation of results. That would necessarily mean auditing the accounts and public disclosure – and the stakeholders may not quite like going down this path. However, with State financing, one would like to think that the long-run costs to the public would be minimized as policies unrelated to the private interests of private companies can then be adopted.

Having spent nearly four and a half years with little results to show, the government seems to be prioritising the same game others have played in the past. So, we appear to be heading again to politics of old – not on the deeper issues with which the country should be really concerned.

What the Political Financing Bill in fact lays bare is what the people have long suspected: the State/Big Business nexus which would explain public policies that are skewed in favour of big business whether it’s in the energy or the sugar sector or in relation to property development and access to land, Smart Cities, etc…

The observation of a USA political analyst highlights the core problem succinctly: ‘As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. With campaign donors and recipients, this is less a matter of classical quid pro quo corruption – the exchange of campaign dollars for votes – than it is the dependence of so many of our elected officials on these megadonations.

Elected officials are often reluctant to take positions that are at odds with the interests of their large donors, and what gets on – or stays off – the legislative agenda can be driven by donor concerns.

This tends to be more significant for issues that get little media attention – who gets a specific tax break or regulatory relief – than for hot-button concerns. But it inevitably shapes who benefits from government action, who is harmed and who is ignored’.

Unfortunately, the proposed Bill seems to go counter to the desirable objective of reducing the influence of big money in the making of policies and decisions. It definitely needs to be debated in much more depth and detail before any final decision is taken, since in its present form it will only allow the prevailing arrangements to be perpetuated.

* Published in print edition on 5 July 2019

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