Wake-up call for the region
Imagine waking up one morning and being greeted with the news, as you switch on your radio, television or start browsing the Internet, that a former high-ranking Government of Barbados official had been arrested by law enforcement authorities in a powerful foreign country on corruption-related charges.
This hypothetical scenario probably sounds a bit far-fetched to some Barbadians. Their doubtful response is most likely a reflection of a lack of awareness of risks to which the island is currently exposed. However, when a neighbour’s house is on fire, it is always advisable to safeguard your own.
Just over a week ago, residents of our sister CARICOM state Antigua and Barbuda received the news that United States authorities had arrested and charged former United Nations ambassador Dr John Ashe on corruption-related tax fraud charges. He is accused of accepting more than US$1 million in bribes from Chinese business interests.
Some of the money, which United States authorities allege was payment for access to key Antigua and Barbuda government officials, ended up in the coffers of the then ruling United Progressive Party (UPP) and was used to help finance its unsuccessful 2014 general election campaign for a third term in office.
Linked by United States authorities to the scandal, former prime minister Baldwin Spencer moved swiftly to clear his name.
“As the then political leader of the United Progressive Party, I was actively engaged in soliciting funds for the maintenance of the party and for the election 2014 campaign,” he acknowledged in a clear-the-air statement.
He went on: “Dr Ashe was asked for assistance in raising funds among persons and organizations of goodwill and, as such, I did not hesitate to accept, through him, donations for the exclusive benefit of the United Progressive Party . . . . I had absolutely no cause to distrust him or to suspect the source of the donations he brought to the party.”
Needless to say, the charges against Dr Ashe, also a former United Nations General Assembly president, are merely allegations at this time. In keeping with convention, therefore, he ought to be given the benefit of the doubt and presumed innocent as the charges against him are yet to be tested in a court of law to determine if they have validity.
However, the reputational damage which Antigua and Barbuda has already suffered internationally, and the likely fallout for other CARICOM countries, underscores the urgent need for Barbados, with which I am primarily concerned, and also other countries to adopt modern regulations to ensure transparency when it comes to election campaign financing of political parties.
Existing loose arrangements not only foster suspicion but also exposes Barbados to the grave risk of becoming entangled in scandal in an environment where a lot of dirty money is floating around and countries looking for much needed investment to boost their economies, are vulnerable to unscrupulous persons.
While it is true that Antigua and Barbuda is no stranger to being associated with corruption – it has had at least two major international scandals in the past, including the Allen Stanford affair, we can reasonably expect certain foreign governments to now pay closer attention to all CARICOM countries. Officials of these governments tend to lump all CARICOM countries together, regardless of their differences.
Alleging corruption by the former Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Government, the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) successfully fought the 2008 general election on a platform of change that proposed the introduction of legislation to promote integrity, transparency and accountability in public life to support an improved system of governance.
Under the proposed arrangements, Cabinet ministers were supposed to sign on to a code of conduct on assuming office. A Freedom Of Information Act also was to be brought to Parliament to provide public access to certain Government records.
“Barbados needs good governance now like it never has before,” said the DLP 2008 manifesto.
As communications director for the DLP during the 2008 campaign, I conveyed this message of change to Barbadians, based on discussions with and instructions from the leadership. The DLP’s failure to deliver on these solemn promises is therefore a source of great distress and disappointment for me personally, even though I have parted company with the DLP.
There are Barbadians who understandably feel they were misled. If I am perceived as having contributed in any way, I humbly apologize but that was never my intention. I simply relayed what I was told would be Government policy which I believed to be true. Come to think of it, I too was misled.
Notwithstanding, it remains my hope that the DLP will do the right thing, especially considering that after promising to “clean up politics in Barbados” (Page 46, 2008 manifesto), it now finds itself being accused of corruption on a scale where some Barbadians are saying the former BLP Government, despite its mistakes, was not so bad after all.
It also needs to bring legislation to promote transparency related to campaign financing. As it stands, only a few people in our political parties know the sources of campaign contributions. In life, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Corporate and individual contributors often do so with the expectation of some kind of benefit down the road. It may be the award of a contract or a special favour through the exercise of influence. Therein lies the vulnerability.
Interestingly, after the scandal broke, the UPP in Antigua and Barbuda called for all-inclusive campaign financing reform. According to the Observer newspaper, UPP public relations officer Damani Tabor said it was time Antigua and Barbuda followed the example of larger, more developed countries in effectively regulating campaign donations.
“Let us look at models across the world. Look at the US where there’s a maximum donation that an individual can make. There’s a reporting mechanism as well,” he said. “In terms of the matter of confidentiality, donors, generally speaking, don’t like to be named, but, of course, we can work around it by mandating the reporting to go to a body who would be aware of the source, but that information would not be divulged to the public.”
I would go a step further and say that a significant portion of campaign financing for political parties should come from the public purse, as happens in Canada which offers a model of best practice for the Caribbean. Of course, parties would have to satisfy certain criteria. Canada, which practises Westminster parliamentary democracy like CARICOM countries, has effective checks to ensure the public interest is safeguarded.
Such a step would definitely go a long way towards restoring waning public confidence in political parties. Delivering the keynote address last year at a University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI) conference that had as its theme Towards A Corruption-Free Caribbean: Ethics, Values, And Morality, Dr Huguette Labelle, the Canadian chair of Transparency International, pointed to surveys that showed political parties were regarded as the most corrupt institution in many parts of the world.
“If you pay a lot of money to a candidate running for election, that candidate owes you something when it comes to deciding the right policies. The question is whether the power of money is greater than the power of ethics,” she posited.
It is time laid-back Barbadians take a greater interest in these issues. The Antigua and Barbuda scandal is a wake-up call for the region.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.