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Politicians are free to campaign – except when they’re not

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Displaced councillors on St Helena have been left confused about whether they can exercise their political freedoms under pre-election “purdah” rules.

St Helena Government has issued a statement saying they are not constrained by the rules – which it says are not rules at all.

But it also says that they are limited in what they can say as members of council committees.

All councillors continue to serve on the eight government committees, though no new policy decisions can be made until an election – which may not take place until 13 weeks after the island’s Legislative Council was unexpectedly dissolved on 19 April 2013.

Former councillor Cyril Gunnell told Saint FM listeners: “It’s still not very clear.”

Officials are prevented from speaking in public about policy matters or contentious government business, to avoid appearing to give an advantage to any particular election candidate. 

But the government statement said that former councillors were not classed as public officials, even though they served on government committees.

Former LegCo members are known to have shared their anger and concerns with each other, and discussed a public response. There has also been talk about what they were allowed to say since purdah had been imposed – prematurely, in the view of some.

Mr Gunnell said: “Anyone wishing to stand for re-election don’t know what it is they can and cannot do.

“I have been emailing the legal people to get some legal advice on this and I am still confused.”

The government statement said: “There are no ‘Purdah Rules’ – there are Purdah Conventions.

“All former councillors have been advised that they exist to create a level playing-field, not to tilt it.  Former councillors who intend to stand for re-election must have no advantage over new candidates, but nor must they be disadvantaged in any way.”

But this is where it apparently gets confusing for council veterans:

“The purdah conventions limit what can be done as chairmen or members of council committees, or members of ExCo, but they do not affect at all what can be done in a person’s private capacity.”

The statement continues: “In particular, they do not constrain former councillors from announcing their  candidature (and campaigning) in exactly the same way as new candidates.  All former councillors have been so advised.”

In fact, guidance issued by The Castle on the day of the dissolution merely discourages councillors from making political statements during committee meetings – it does not ban them from doing so.

It said: “Such meetings must not be used as electioneering platforms, giving sitting members electoral advantage over other candidates. Officials attending such meetings must withdraw if members indulge in such activity.”

That appears to contrast with the latest statement that politicians are “limited” while in committee sessions.

Mr Gunnell said it was unclear to him whether political campaigning could start before the formal writ of election was introduced – expected in the second or third week of May.

He said: “My understanding is the election period, when people would start to campaign, would start from the writ of election. To me, that is the purdah period. It hasn’t been issued yet.

“I have taken legal advice. I have been told now that my question is one on which opinions differ. How can they differ to such an extent?

“I feel our hands are tied behind our backs.”

A statement issued by The Castle on 2 May 2013 said: “On a small island, the campaign effectively starts with Dissolution.”

It said this followed best practice – even though it was a clear departure from UK practice.

But the SHG line has since been endorsed by chief magistrate John MacRitchie in guidance issued to island broadcasters, aimed at ensuring fair coverage of candidates.

It said the guidance only applied during “the actual election period”, and added: “This period begins with the announcement of the Dissolution of the Legislative Council.”

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