Integrity one sure antidote to corruption
Recurring accusations of corruption against politicians, especially those serving in Government, represent an emotive issue that always triggers anger and revulsion among Barbadian voters. This reaction suggests people feel cheated and disappointed by reports of such behaviour.
Though hardly ever tested before the law courts to prove their veracity and secure convictions, corruption allegations have tainted the reputations of some politicians for life and have also contributed to bringing down governments, once voters form sufficiently strong suspicions which they consider believable.
Corruption was a hot issue in the 2008 general election that brought the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) to office. The Dems’ memorable Haggatt Hall public meeting, considered the turning point in that campaign, sealed voter perception of the then ruling Barbados Labour Party (BLP) as a corrupt Government.
The Dems promised a new beginning with improved governance, greater accountability and transparency, and a Government committed to the highest level of integrity. Barbadians were told Cabinet ministers had to sign a code of conduct on taking office and that a Freedom Of Information Act, opening up Government records to public scrutiny, would be introduced as matters of urgency.
Almost eight years have passed and these campaign promises, which would have persuaded many people to vote for the DLP, remain unfulfilled without satisfactory explanation. And, as if to prove right the old saying that “what goes around comes around”, the Dems ironically find themselves at the receiving end of corruption allegations from the BLP Opposition.
When politicians make promises which they fail to keep, they do the country a great disservice by sowing seeds of public distrust and cynicism. Based on recurring comments in everyday discourse, it seems fair to say that an increasing number of Barbadians hold the view today that most politicians seek office not so much to serve the people, as was the case in bygone years, but more so to see how much they can get.
This perception of politicians as self-serving has contributed to a noticeable decline in their public standing over the last 25 years.
Indeed, prevailing perception of the motivation for seeking public office does raise a relevant question. Could it be that the increasing incidence of vote buying at election time represents a tit-for-tat response by voters?
If voters are saying, “Okay, I know you are going in mainly to see what you can get; so to get my support, you have to give me something”, the reasoning seems highly plausible. Perhaps, it is a question which leading pollster Peter Wickham and his firm CADRES may wish to explore in their field research for the next public opinion poll.
Needless to say, vote buying is a serious issue which has the potential to undermine and contaminate our democracy over the long term.
If a vote is now being treated as a tradeable commodity, then the buyer does not have any real moral obligation, so to speak, to provide the seller with good representation. By selling their vote and shortchanging themselves in the process, such voters have arguably surrendered that right.
It is noteworthy that mostly DLP politicians, especially Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, railed against the practice after the last general election but subsequently took no decisive steps, to the best of our knowledge, to address the problem. Any serious attempt to effectively address the issue must begin by identifying and understanding the underlying factors through research.
We believe that a powerful antidote to stemming corruption, or the recurring allegations thereof, is through implementation of an effective system of transparency and accountability. Too much of the business of Government is transacted in an environment of secrecy. Seeing that ministers are usually the main targets, it makes a lot of sense for every politician on taking office to publicly declare his assets to a public watchdog, such as an Integrity Commission, so that this information can serve as a reference point for assessing any suspicious changes in financial circumstances during his or her tenure in office.
Politicians who are seeking office for the noble cause of representing the people’s interest and contributing to improving the public good should have no difficulty with this requirement. If the Dems are serious about addressing the corruption allegations currently swirling around the Government, they should implement what was promised in 2008 without delay.
Prime Minister Stuart should personally take responsibility for delivering on this commitment. He was marketed in the last election as Mr Integrity, who had come to inject some ethics into our politics.
At a time when so much is going wrong for him, a golden opportunity is presenting itself for him to leave a favourable legacy by formalizing high standards of conduct for those holding public office.