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Election gimmick most crass

Sunday, January 4, 2015

I imagine that it is only because this is a season of generosity and forgiveness that we are being asked to believe that the Prime Minister did not think that a simple press release containing her Christmas greetings to the population was appropriate.

For some reason, it was thought worthwhile and necessary to spend thousands of taxpayers’ hard-earned money to erect billboards all over the country with the Prime Minister’s face staring back at us in order to convey what could have been conveyed in a more traditional and less costly fashion. 

Don’t expect that this is how Divali, Eid, Independence, Republic Day or Arrival Day greetings will be delivered in the future. There is no intention to do so. This is an election gimmick pure and simple, and it is an insult to the population’s intelligence to pretend otherwise.

Which leads to the recent proliferation of advertisements in the print and electronic media extolling the alleged accomplishments of the Government. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have seen the full-page ads from the Ministry of National Security citing statistics about a precipitous drop in serious crimes. 

It seems that the Government thinks that we are a forgetful people and has therefore determined that it is necessary to remind us day after day of their successes. Or maybe the intention is to comfort us with good news in the face of impending hard times which the drop in the price of oil may herald. Of course, that’s not the reason. I don’t believe that for one minute, and I am sure you don’t either. This is electioneering in its most crass form. 

I don’t know how much money this campaign is costing. It must be a whole heap. Full-page ads cost a lot. Likewise, space on television and internet Web sites. Somebody should ask the question. But whatever the cost, it is my money and yours that is being spent. 

It must be self-evident that it is not lawful for a government to use public funds to finance its re-election campaign. Our highest court has held that the use of state property to achieve an electoral advantage for one political party is illegal.

If the advertisements with which we have been bombarded had said, “Your government has been working for you and therefore return us to office in the upcoming election,” the Director of Public Prosecutions would have been justified in directing the Commissioner of Police to open an investigation into misfeasance in public office, and the Integrity Commission would have been acting well within its powers to initiate an investigation into whether somebody was using his public office to secure an unfair advantage for the ruling party, to name just one of the possible breaches of the Integrity in Public Life Act which appears relevant.

But forget the law for the moment. Let’s just talk about common fairness.

The Government Information Service is an important tool in ensuring good governance. It is frequently necessary to share information with the public, say, to educate us about how to access government services, to warn us about health or security hazards, to correct misinformation about government initiatives or government policies or to provide justification for legislative measures which might be under consideration in Parliament. Our money is well spent when these objectives are pursued.

It is hardly ever necessary, however, to provide us with a report card about how the Government is performing, and it is even more suspicious when this is done on the eve of an election.

Clearly, the effect, and the undoubted purpose, of the ongoing media campaign is to present the Government in the best light possible against the backdrop of more than four years of mistakes, miscalculations, misconduct and misdeeds.

The hope is that by constant repetition of the ways in which the Government has been working for us we might actually be brainwashed into believing that we dreamt that the Prime Minister had good cause to fire or sideline a record number of ministers, public officials and state board appointees. 

A party in power is entitled to have its accomplishments made known to the electorate, just as much as the electorate is entitled to know the good which the Government has done in deciding whether their franchise should be extended. But it is simply wrong and immoral to use state funds for that purpose.

If we are to be put in a position to truly make an accurate assessment of the Government’s performance in deciding whether to re-elect them, we are entitled to have a true picture of the Government, warts and all, presented for our consideration. But it is naive to expect the Government Information Service to take out full page ads reminding us, say, about the Section 34 fiasco.

To match the onslaught of government good news, therefore, the Opposition would need to launch an equally expensive counter-campaign using its own funds to do so. That just cannot be right or fair. 

We are accustomed to the last-minute expenditure of state funds to carry out public works in marginal constituencies in an attempt to persuade voters to maintain the status quo. The only reason why these shenanigans escape being condemned as out and out electoral bribery is because it is undeniable that the paving of roads, for example, is a typical government function.

What has been happening with the billboards and the advertising campaign goes way beyond that. This is the crass and brazen raiding of public funds to unfairly benefit the ruling party.


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