Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ethical political conduct

Reginald Dumas logo35

Mark Fraser

 Yes, I know: that phrase is a contradiction in terms, not only in this country. “Yesterday was yesterday and today is today,” says someone who should know. “Politics has a morality of its own,” says another who should know even better. “Morality” is a much abused word, flung about by priest and politician alike. I tiptoe around it. I prefer “ethics” — at least I have a pretty good idea what that means. Some others in the society do as well, and have been courageous enough to draw up what they call a “Code of Ethical Political Conduct”. 

We have never taken the time in this country to take a serious look at ourselves. Rather, we make sweeping and self-congratulatory generalisations — “all ah we is one”, “rainbow nation”, etc. — side by side with the most venomous remarks about one another, often tainted by racism. It is in our gladiatorial politics, still too blindly partisan (though the centre is growing), that the divisions among us are most clearly visible. But they only reflect the solitudes in which so many of us dwell — side by side we stand, looking in different directions, always ready to misinterpret one another’s thoughts and actions.

Those who conceived the idea of the Code are to be highly commended. They have not only recognised that deep political schisms exist in our “all ah we is one” country, they have sought to do something about them. In a society where talk takes easy precedence over action, and mindless chatter over constructive criticism, and personalities over issues, their initiative must be welcomed. But have they perhaps been less attentive and more trusting than they should?

The Code (which I assume had the benefit of political party input?) says early o’clock that “pursuant to (their) Constitution the people of Trinidad and Tobago...have asserted that forgiveness and reconciliation are integral to nation-building...” Have they really? Which section of the Constitution says that? Mind you, it’s a noble ideal, but recent public exchanges and expressions would appear to fly in its face.

One of the objectives of the Code is “uphold(ing the people’s) right to make political choices.” It isn’t the fault of the Code’s authors, but does the recently passed run-off mechanism confer that unfettered right, or will some people find themselves making choices they feel have been forced upon them by the law?

And what of the commitments the Code asks parties, coalitions and candidates to accept? 

“Maintain the highest moral principles and ethical standards.” (Those words again.) “Refrain from practices that promote divisiveness in the society”. 

“Confine their criticism of other political parties to (their) policies and programmes, past record and work”. 

“While acknowledging (one) other’s past and present errors and prejudices, support one another in a common effort to overcome selfishness and arrogance, hatred and violence”. 

“Not offer any inducement or reward”. 

“Not indulge in negative campaigning or advertising”. 

“Not use funds derived from any improperly influence electoral choices”. And so on. How will all this actually come about?

And will the parties, etc. really undertake “due diligence protect against ‘dirty money’ contaminating the process”? And “cause (their) be audited by a qualified accountant and presented to the Council for Responsible Political Behaviour...within 90 days after the holding of each election”? 

For its part, this Council, an element of the Code, is to monitor and evaluate adherence to the Code. Its members are to be a mix of political and civil society appointees. I would have thought that expecting politicians to keep a vigilant eye on themselves might be a somewhat more injudicious approach than contracting a fox to guard the hencoop. Hope must, I suppose, be allowed to spring eternal, even for politicians, but reality suggests that the Council should be a purely civil society body which could perform the various tasks of oversight, etc. the Code assigns to it. What enforcement powers would it have, though? How could they be effectively applied?

Whatever the Code’s deficiencies, it is a major step in the direction of the good governance we keep saying we want. We must do what we can to support and strengthen it.