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Friday, September 17, 2021
Home Editorial The urgency of campaign finance laws

The urgency of campaign finance laws

A number of so-called third parties have contested general elections in Belize, none achieving any success at the polls; however, they have all made their mark, either by enlightening the people or by introducing ideas that the two main parties later incorporated into their platforms. One such third party was/is the VIP (Vision Inspired by the People), and when the party contested the 2008 general elections, one of its vows to the people of Belize was that if it formed the new government it would “enact stiff campaign finance laws to regulate the financing of political campaigns.”

If the people of Belize didn’t fully grasp the absolute necessity of such laws then, they were — upon review of what had happened before, and since — sufficiently informed to demand, in the last election, that such laws be enacted. In response, the People’s United Party, in its Plan Belize manifesto 2020-2025, declared it would introduce campaign finance reform with legislation to ensure disclosure of campaign contributions.

Since there were no campaign finance laws in place for the 2020 general election, we again find ourselves competing with party donors, one in particular who feels the new government is as much or more his/theirs, than ours.

All Belizeans knew that the PUP’s donors would be making their demands on the new government. The unofficial biggest donor, Lord Ashcroft, thought the government wasn’t moving swiftly enough. For him, the waiting was getting unbearable, he was antsy, working himself into a lather, and some months ago he went on his television station, before Belizeans and the world, to, in an extremely offensive way, tell our prime minister and government to get on with it.
The bold attack by the privately owned SMART on the client base of the publicly owned BTL wasn’t surprising. The unofficial majority shareholder in SMART is the Ashcroft Alliance, and the present party controlling government is indebted to him for his unofficial campaign contributions. The people of Belize probably are also indebted to him; we probably owe him because the role of money in our electoral process, partly because of him, has been much magnified in recent general elections.

The last government (UDP) was consumed by rot, and every Belizean who wasn’t UDP knew that crowd had to go. But, the UDP, which was corrupt in its handling of the nation’s resources, was also corrupt in its handling of the electoral process. Every weakness in the system they could find to further their chances at the polls, they exploited. The party went into a frenzy distributing land “just” before the election and legislated a massive easing of taxes for landowners who were in arrears.

If we put aside for a moment all that Lord Ashcroft has done to manipulate our governments to do his will, mostly to the detriment of the country, it could possibly be argued that the Belizean people owe him a little for his helping us get rid of the corrupt bunch that was sucking the life out of our country.

Before continuing this essay, let us establish that we accept that Lord Ashcroft, whose group owns Channel Five and the Belize Bank, isn’t officially the owner of a number of companies/entities that are said to be under his control. He did not own BTL when, reportedly acting as a kind of “Good Samaritan” in a room somewhere in Miami, he helped the then leader of our government, Dean Barrow, sign away half the savings of the people of Belize, an agreement which was tempered with a yet unfulfilled commitment that a substantial part of the settlement would come back to the Belizean people in the form of charitable projects.

Lord Ashcroft’s group also does not “officially” own approximately 80% of Smart, the company which got interconnection from the Ashcroft-controlled BTL, after the Ashcroft-controlled BTL refused to give it to Intelco. At the Port of Belize (PBL) he is also not “officially” the “receiver”, an entity which has been managing PBL for over a decade without public scrutiny, a period during which it has refused to make any serious investment to improve the facility.

Briefly putting aside the companies/entities he doesn’t claim to own/run, we have seen both major political parties scrambling to serve him. It is the PUP that invited him to Belize, but that hasn’t stopped the UDP from nakedly pursuing him. We saw former UDP government minister, Michael Finnegan, awkwardly take him about his constituency, so his people could meet and greet and shake hands with a real “white man”, and a couple weeks ago we saw another former UDP government minister, Wilfred Elrington, in his weekly column in the Reporter, drool over the potential of the Waterloo cruise terminal that Ashcroft is insisting on, without once considering the serious implications for the environment.

The “receiver” at PBL, which gained control of the prized asset after some complicated “dealings” by a PUP government, declared to successive Belize governments that the port, which did not have adequate bulk storage facilities, would be left without such necessary improvement if the green light wasn’t given to its Waterloo cruise terminal project, a development which most environmentalists are united against.

With PBL having been left in a state of major disrepair, the country’s major sugar producer, ASR/BSI, recently concluded that it was less costly to ship the bulk of its product to a port three times farther away by road, at Big Creek in South Stann Creek. That is the definition of inefficiency and, without factoring in that the owners of the port at Big Creek are also unofficial donors to the last PUP campaign, it can be said that the squander is all because the “receiver” insisted, without considering the port’s workers or the cane farmers, that it was his way, or the highway.

SMART, the private company taking away the business of entire government departments from the publicly owned BTL, looks like the PUP rolling over for the major donor, and that gets a second look, because members of the Prime Minister’s family are not only part owners of Smart, but they are also unofficial sponsors of the PUP’s 2020 campaign. There are areas where BTL doesn’t have a strong signal, and Belizeans might have accepted the public company losing a little in these areas, in the short term, but it’s not easy for them to swallow this major hit.

Once again, within a year of electing a new government, Belizeans find themselves wrestling forces called political donors to keep our government on a path that will lead to a better future in which all of us win. We’ve been down this road before, and it will recur until we fix this terrible weakness in our system by putting in stiff campaign finance laws.

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