I love the thrill of politics. To be more specific, the intellectual stimulation that comes from studying the terrain where political battles are fought, delving into the minds of those on the opposing side and predicting their behaviour in certain situations, identifying their strengths and weaknesses and then crafting strategies to turn possibilities into realities.
When everything goes according to plan, the satisfaction is equivalent to a mind-blowing high. However, there is a particular aspect of politics, as practised in Barbados and the wider English-speaking Caribbean, that is rather discomforting. It is a turn-off for many talented persons whose only reason for political participation is to serve and contribute to the betterment of community and country.
I am referring to a culture of “give me! give me!” that has taken root in the last 25 years and is particularly evident at a certain socio-economic level. It is corrupting politics, depriving the country of more important contributions and putting at risk the reputations of inherently good men and women who come to public life with the purest of intentions.
I am broaching the subject because corruption seems to be uppermost on the minds of Barbadians at this moment. A strong suspicion that corruption reached an all-time high under the former Democratic Labour Party (DLP) regime, is fuelling an angry public debate in the aftermath of the sweeping change of government in the May 24 general election.
Deeply disappointed, Barbadians are calling for the new Barbados Labour Party (DLP) administration to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing and, where incontrovertible evidence is found, bring the perpetrators to justice. The former regime, which was best known for its silence, is yet to respond with a public statement defending its stewardship and reputation.
Doing so is certainly not my task. However, fairness dictates that a presumption of innocence must also apply in this case until it is proven otherwise. Perhaps if the DLP had taken seriously the commitments it had given in the 2008 general election to promote openness, transparency and accountability in government, it might have spared itself the present agony. Promises to enact freedom of information and integrity in public life legislation, were never carried through during the DLP’s ten year tenure.
Interestingly, such a move would have advanced a fundamental objective of the DLP as stated in its constitution. Namely, “to secure and maintain honesty and responsibility in public life, and to root out, by every constitutional means, graft and corruption wherever it may exist.” Weren’t DLP members aware of this provision for the promotion of good governance?
The pervasive culture of “give me! give me!” seems rooted in a misguided view held by some Barbadians that the minute one offers him or herself for elected office, he or she automatically assumes the role of constituency benefactor. In this role, politicians are expected, among other things, to respond favourably to constituents’ requests to pay utility and other bills, help send children to school, bail people out of debt, help meet funeral expenses, and so on.
Few persons in Barbados come to public life with deep pockets to support that level of largesse. While I readily concede that there will be sometimes genuine cases of hardship deserving of compassionate consideration, in many others, the poor politician is simply being taken for a ride by persons out to get what they can get. Some persons are skilled manipulators who know how to play politicians off against each other to get what they want. It usually happens if the requested support is not forthcoming.
There was a case involving a pregnant young woman who had approached a budding politician for support for two other children she had with deadbeat dads. She wanted some money to buy school clothes and supplies. The politician sympathetically listened to her plight but became reluctant to assist on learning that the young lady seemed destined to face the same challenge with the unborn child. She obviously had not learned from past experience.
“You seem to have had a string of bad luck with these men,” the politician remarked. “My advice is that you start taking full responsibility for your life to avoid more of these situations.” It was not what the young woman wanted to hear. “You helping me or not?” she retorted. “If you can’t, I will go to the other candidate. It ain’t me alone, you know. My house got eight votes and who gives me help going to get all of them.”
Some politicians buckle to the pressure. Eager to win or retain their seats, some dip into personal savings, incur debt or quietly turn to a sponsor with deep pockets who comes to the rescue on the expectation of benefitting later through the politician’s influence. A politician’s generosity, however, is not a guarantee of reciprocated support.
As some have painfully found out over the years, constituents they have assisted sometimes go on to support a political rival especially if he or she happens to be more generous. Dollars rule today in this materialistic world! How politics is practised in the Caribbean provides fertile ground for corruption. If a politician of average means has to fork out so much just to get the opportunity to serve, the temptation to recoup what was given away may be irresistible to some.
Readers of this column who have repeatedly asked why I have never seriously pursued running for a seat, now have the answer. I refuse to be a hostage of the politics of “give me! give me!” I come from a school of thought which holds that political representation is a call to selfless service for the betterment of fellowman, community and country. Why then should I have to pauperize myself to serve at that level?
If our politics has become corrupt, it is because the people have made it corrupt. It is ironic that the persons who contribute the most always tend to be among the most vociferous when it comes to accusing politicians for being corrupt. When someone demands payment for his or her vote on election day, does he or she not realize what he or she is doing? I hold steadfastly to the view that if persons sell their votes, they have forfeited the right to demand effective representation. Why complain then if you do not see the MP?
To root out corruption, we need to begin by revisiting our understanding of politics. Political representation is about selfless service. It is not a fast route to the accumulation of personal wealth to give away, as some people believe. Rather, it should be seen a noble pathway to empowering people through shaping the development of public policy which provides effective solutions to problems and ultimately delivers a better quality of life for all.
I am encouraged by the steps taken so far by the Mia Mottley administration to transform our politics by placing emphasis on the promotion of integrity, transparency and accountability. There is a need for public education to sensitize the average citizen that when they make outrageous demands on politicians, they are unconsciously shooting themselves in the foot by contributing to corrupting the system.
Prime Minister Mottley clearly understands that if Government’s operations continue to be shrouded in secrecy, the opportunity will continue to exist for corruption allegations because of public suspicion and mistrust. If the DLP had really understood this and delivered on its campaign commitments, it probably would not be in the present predicament where reputations are being dragged through the mud.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist.