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Raffique Shah


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Politics and ethics only rhyme

By Raffique Shah
August 7, 2014

Archbishop Joseph Harris strikes me as being a "rootsy Trini"—a prelate who commands respect beyond his flock even as he exudes a tremendous sense of humour.

What I could not discern from a distance (I've never met the good Father) is that he is also a humorist who can put veterans such as Paul Keens-Douglas and "Sprangalang" to pale on any stage at any time.

Last week, Fr Harris invited leaders and senior officials of all political parties to Archbishop's House in Port of Spain to sign a concord that bears the oxymoronic title, "Code of Ethical Political Conduct".

Amidst much laughter and more "skin teeth", officials from the UNC, PNM, COP, ILP and MSJ appended their signatures to the document which, while I have not yet read it, is reported to contain guidelines for politicians' behaviour, their conduct during elections campaigns and when they hold office.

What amused me first was the sight of these politicians, most of whom could hardly tolerate each other, back-slapping, grinning and chatting in Father's mansion where there are many rooms, although I doubt that there is any for the Devil. But I saw many devils, sheathed knives concealed in their underwear, itching to stab each other in the pursuit of power, and by extension, capture of the Treasury.

Little wonder Fr Harris laughed heartily throughout the proceedings, knowing he had foisted a Shakespearean tragic-comedy on the population. The good Father must know the words "politics" and "ethics", while they rhyme, they are in fact antonyms, not synonyms.

An ethical politician anywhere in the world, but most of all in Trinidad and Tobago, is an invisible entity. He or she simply does not exist, so by making much out of a code (or codes) by which none of the signatories will abide, is taking a joke too far.

Skulduggery is the creed by which our politicians survive, and gutter-fighting is as natural to them as breathing or lying. No code of conduct, or for that matter, laws on campaign financing or procurement or integrity, will temper their thieving ways.

Qualities such as honesty, kindness, generosity, humaneness, and, I argue, ethics and morals, are inculcated in an individual from early in his or her life, in the home, by parents, teachers and other adults who interact with, and guide them. If one does not possess them and abide by them by the time one is a young adult, forget it.

This is why, for all the free tertiary education we boast of, we have a corresponding number of dishonest, unethical, immoral people, many of whom enter politics or business. It is why these young graduates see corruption as par for the political course, and either condone or actively participate in the pillage of the Treasury.

Fr Harris, no code of conduct will save us from the damnation of corruption, from politicians exploiting race, from their abandonment of the wretched of society who are condemned to live in squalor and purgatory, government come, government go.

I hear people clamouring for campaign financing legislation, as if that would somehow stop political parties from amassing tens, hundreds of millions of dollars in their war chests, mostly from business interests that seek to secure influence (contracts) in whatever regime emerges winner.

Again, no laws will stop the madness of parties purchasing power.

I'll relate a story to illustrate why I argue that if the leadership of political parties have the will to self-regulate campaign financing, they can do it without any law hanging over their heads.

The only party I ever joined (I was a co-founder) was the original ULF, meaning the 1975 model, not the later incarnation. Coming out of labour, with four unions forming the core (All Trinidad, OWTU, TIWU and ICFTU), and ordinary workers and farmers its base, the party was poor—and that is putting it mildly.

The incumbent PNM, wallowing in the country's first oil boom, had no such problem. Indeed, it was during the 1976 elections campaign that Dr Eric Williams uttered the words, "Money is no problem."

We had to raise funds, mostly small money coming from large numbers of supporters. But we needed more.

George Weekes and Basdeo Panday cosigned for a $10,000 loan from a bank that we all agreed to repay, chipping in whatever small sums we could afford—which we did, post-elections. Even so, we needed more. But the executive, which included principled men such as Lennox Pierre, Allan Alexander and George Sammy, placed strict limits on individual and corporate contributions.

We would accept no more than $500 from individuals and $2,000 from corporations. One evening, at an executive meeting, candidate Richard Jacobs proudly displayed a cheque for $5,000 from business house Kirpalani's. Jacobs was ordered to return the cheque with thanks, but to let Kirpalani's know that our limit was $2,000.

We heard nothing more from Jacobs or the donor. Hans Hanoomansingh, who was then a senior manager with Kirpalani's, can corroborate what I have written here. That was a case of self-regulation. We held firmly to our principles even though we needed the money. Such conduct requires no code, just decent, honourable men and women.

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