Among the many accolades that have been heaped upon the late president and prime minister Arthur NR Robinson, the most frequent was that he was not a corrupt politician. Even his worst detractors seem to agree that he did not use his office to raid the Treasury and to fill his pockets and those of his friends and family. Immediately following the news of his passing CCN TV6 took to the streets asking people to give their views on Mr Robinson’s lengthy career. One elderly gentlemen seemed to capture a common perspective when he said, “I didn’t like some of the things he did but at least he didn’t t’ief!”
It is a view that was reinforced in a recent interview by MSJ leader David Abdulah who added that, apart some well-known scoundrels, many public officials of that era were committed to serving the public interest. A lot of them went into retirement not much wealthier than when they began their careers and former prime minister George Chambers may be a good example. They were content to have done their best and to have maintained a high level of integrity throughout their days in office. At the funeral service at NAPA for the late president, Chief Justice Ivor Archie hailed Mr Robinson’s legacy and noted that “he is that very rare breed of politician who has spent many years in public life in powerful positions and there has never been a credible hint of corruption levelled against him”.
Today a different dynamic is in the ascendancy and the pursuit of personal wealth and power has replaced the desire to serve. Unfortunately, the rot does not end with the theft of public funds but the society also has to contend with a rising murder rate that is directly linked to the drug trade and its associated evils, including the importation of guns.
A few weeks ago, Independent Senator Helen Drayton lamented that “the country has arrived at a disturbing place where standards are reinforced at the lowest denominator. There is a continuous downward norming of societal standards”. However, stemming the tide of corruption is easier said than done since powerful forces have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. In the absence of comprehensive whistle-blower protection anyone who speaks out against the sleaze is likely to face the vindictiveness of those whose “corns” have been mashed.
In a recent Sunday Express column Sunity Maharaj raised the issue of “the level of fear that exists throughout the public and private sectors about the repercussions of standing up to power”. This fear of exposing corruption in high places was reiterated by Kirk Waithe of Fixin’ T&T who stated that “many people are scared of reprisal and historically our politicians have thrived on this fear of reprisal”. Indeed this is not new and it is an issue that the late president Robinson addressed way back in 1970 when he said “our country cries out for men and women who cannot be bought and sold. Men and women who are prepared to put principle before personality, country before self, morality before power”.
Today these words continue to resonate as more and more citizens seek a greater commitment to “moral and spiritual values”. Despite the clamour there have been varying reactions to the concept of “morality before power’’. One school of thought suggests that allegations of corruption and unethical conduct can be ignored and the public should be distracted by public relations gimmickry and spin. Central to this strategy is a steady diet of advertisements and news releases filled with platitudes and hyperbole. Given the ever-expanding media environment, especially social media, this smoke and mirrors approach will not work and is likely to irritate an already sceptical public. As long as there is a fixation with image instead of substance complex problems such as crime will remain unresolved. Indeed, “we have a country to defend” but we cannot do so through public relations and empty rhetoric.
There is also the myth of the nine-day wonder, a simplistic concept which suggests that a problem will miraculously disappear when ignored for nine days or thereabouts. The reality is that issues do not escape scrutiny because they are no longer on the front pages but instead they will continue to fester behind the scenes. When they eventually resurface the impact is likely to be more devastating than when first exposed. For this reason, there is another school of thought which recommends an honest, direct and decisive response at the earliest opportunity. Turning a blind eye or waiting to see where the wind is blowing is useless when the storm begins to rage.
The irony is that while there are calls for higher standards of conduct, those making the appeals are often condemned as having a covert political agenda or some personal vendetta. When this type of rhetoric emerges it is usually a reflection of the siege mentality that afflicts the embattled politician. A classic example was Richard Nixon, the late president of the United States whose paranoia eventually led to his removal from office. As he grew increasingly unpopular Nixon established his infamous “Enemies List’’ which included not only political opponents but ordinary citizens who dared to publicly criticise him.
Every criticism however valid was seen as part of some sinister plot to get at him and even agencies of the government like the Internal Revenue Service were used to intimidate and persecute his critics. He failed miserably and it is instructive that a few months before the Watergate scandal literally brought him to his knees, Nixon boldly declared on television.... “I am not a crook”.
• Richard Baithwaite is a management consultant