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Hon. Patrick Faber: ‘Campaign Finance’ Reform needed

Belize needs campaign finance reform that sets a ceiling on campaign spending and demands transparency regarding the source of campaign funds, Hon. Patrick Faber told The Reporter Thursday.

“If there were Campaign Finance Regulations in place in this country, it would have been more difficult for the type of scenario currently playing out,” Faber lamented in reference to certain allegations made against former United Democratic Party (UDP) Minister John Saldivar, whom the United States government recently designated as having been involved in “significant corruption.”

Campaign Finance regulations, among other things, would require politicians to be accountable and transparent regarding the use and sources of funds for their campaigns.

Faber, however, did admonish that the move towards campaign finance regulations must be handled carefully. He explained that while the reform “needs to happen,” it has to be advanced under a careful process that would address at least two salient factors: the limit on contributions and spending and whether or not (if there are limits) will any state-coordinated funds be provided.

Regarding the former, Faber intimated that the limit does not have to be very high. He explained to The Reporter that throughout his approximately two decades of being the representative for the Collet Division, he has never spent more than $300,000.

“In my first campaign, I spent about $15,000 in 2003. The highest is possibly $250,000, and for sure below $300,000,” Faber explained, as he made the point that there is no need for the ceiling—which is designed to level the playing field between political candidates—to be extremely high. He also underscored the point that it is really up to politicians to build relationships with their constituents instead of relying on large sums of campaign spending to court votes.

For his part, former Senate President Darrell Bradley had circulated a draft Campaign Finance Bill in 2020. The Bill, which Bradley dubbed the Political Parties (Registration and Financial Reporting) [draft] Act 2020, called for the disclosure of contributors as well as set limits on spending. For example, section 23(2) read:

“No person shall make a campaign finance contribution in excess of the limit of $5,000 to any one candidate in any month.”

It had also called for limits for Political Parties, saying, “No political party shall receive in excess of $100,000 from one campaign finance contribution in any month.”

In terms of accountability, Faber did warn, however, that while it is needed for increased transparency, the concern may come from contributors who would likely prefer that their financing of candidates or political parties remain confidential.

The Belize People’s Front (BPF)’s Party Leader, Nancy Marin, also chimed in on the matter of campaign finance.

“Money is one of the essential tools for the operations of political parties,” Marin explained. “It particularly affects newcomers to the electoral processes.”

She went on to explain that apart from transparency and accountability, it also matters if Belize will achieve gender-balanced representation. “The lack of political financing regulations can affect women’s access to run as candidates, be elected, campaign, and reach out to the population,” Marin shared. “Regulations on political funding are used to level the playing field in electoral competition. They can also work to ensure that women are able to compete on a more equal footing with men.”

Public Sector Funding for Political Parties

The five-time Collet Area Representative explained that it would, therefore, be necessary to consider public-coordinated funding of political parties.

This approach could be used to equalize the playing field among candidates and political parties, at least as it pertains to campaign spending.

The idea of public-sector-coordinated spending towards political parties is not unique. Several countries, including Jamaica, as authorized under their Representation of the People’s Act, provide public-sector-sourced funds as reimbursement for outlays towards campaigns.

In some areas, it is possible for citizens to contribute to a pooled public fund, which is then distributed to parties or candidates in accordance with a preset formula.

Other countries that have some form of public-sector-sourced funding for candidates or political parties include Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, and the United States.

The Status Quo

At present, Belize lacks any political party registration or campaign financing laws. This point was recently emphasized during a press conference held by former UDP Minister John Saldivar, who—when pressed by the media on the amount of monies received from convicted tax fraudster Lev Dermen—reminded the media that he is "not required to say where" he gets funding for his campaign.

The matter stems back to the 2020 USA-based case against Dermen. During the USA-based trial, Saldivar was named as the Belize government minister who received monies from Dermen.

In February 2020, Saldivar did admit via a press statement that he indeed had received campaign contributions from Dermen. Then, Saldivar had written:

"I have always maintained that I was never, ever bribed by Lev Dermen, I was never a part of any discussion to move any money from the United States to Belize, and I never involved myself in any act of corruption or wrongdoing.

"This is what I have said repeatedly in all my public releases. I was always careful not to say that I did not receive any cash because I knew that I did receive campaign contributions from Lev Dermen, just like many other politicians on both sides of the aisle who knew Lev Dermen. These contributions were not tied to any favor or quid pro quo, hence were not illegal or improper."

In that February 2020 statement, the former minister also said, "My failure to disclose was a mistake, and I deeply regret it. I should have opted to make full disclosure to Cabinet and to the public from the outset. This mistake was unnecessary and avoidable since there was nothing wrong or illegal about receiving campaign funds."

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