30 Apr 2013

TO BUY A COUNTRY

With respect to the possible tainting of party financing with regards to illegal/ill gotten monies, raised by Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin, the UNC-PP denied any possible 'co-mingling' of such funding.

Here is Mr Balgobin's response:

I was gratified to be featured in a UNC press release relating to campaign financing. It keeps the issue alive and in the public focus, and for that I am grateful.

The UNC position denies that any party financing came from stolen funds. My definition of “stolen” here is expansive. It means not only money that was literally thieved, but also funds which might have been misappropriated by the donors or which the donor has no power to give at all.

Using this unscientific definition, the UNC stance is curious. More than one financier of the party has been accused of stealing on a global scale; some are already on corruption charges. Yet others feature in a Commission of Enquiry. If they stole people’s money, and gave your party large sums of money, then a relationship between the two can reasonably be hypothesised.

If such a hypothesis were supported, a logical corollary would be to understand whether this is a new development. Sadly, the answer is no, we have seen this all before. The issue of political power and the relative weakness of our institutions means our democracy has probably never had the correct equilibrium – we have been corrupt from the start of our nationhood.

To most young people, Banana Republic is a shirt. The term however in political science is a pejorative reference to a monocultural, export-led economy, dominated by a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) with a stratified social system and a large population of poor. The classic example is Honduras.

While the details are different, there are worrying similarities developing here. Our economy is dominated by the State, which is run by the political class. They, in turn, seem to be funded increasingly by moneyed elites. I did not say “businesspeople”, since many of these financiers are “tenderpreneurs”, not true businessmen (the word itself is a portmanteau of “tender” and “entrepreneur”). That is to say, they make their money through business got through political connections paid for by donations.

Tenderpreneurs have been with us for quite some time, their fortunes waxing and waning with those of political parties. There are many examples of business failure after elections, at least some of these as a result of latent weaknesses exposed by the shift in sales which accompanies change of government. The dominant economic role of the State obscures this picture, but the tenderpreneurship phenomenon certainly is there.

The argument of how “banana” we are took a new turn with the revelation that then permanent secretary Cheryl Blackman accepted a free trip to Jamaica with a minister’s private funds. She was that minister’s PS at the time. Since the PS is the accounting officer of a Ministry, it is a terrible indictment on public service standards that she should accept such an offer. To suggest we ask someone else to explain how she found herself on the plane is a logic found more often in police interrogations. Game theory’s Prisoner’s Dilemma brought to life at last.

If a PS took gifts from a minister, and yet “broke no rules”, then clearly, we need better rules. The modus operandi for buying support is obvious enough. Give lots of small earners small sums, and you buy their love and loyalty for life. Give a few bigger players bigger “gifts”, and you make space to operate.

Can you buy a democracy, or at least a seat? I suspect you can do the latter. The EBC 2011 electoral list suggests the largest constituency has about 29,000 voters. Assuming a 65 per cent turnout, that’s about 19,000 voting, 50.1 per cent of which is about 9,500. At $1,000 a head, that’s less than $10 million, or $2 million a year over five years. An oversimplified example, and a sure investment.

Recognising the risk, I would therefore have wanted more than a bald refutation. The UNC should voluntarily declare the sources of its campaign funds. I would like very much for the party to lead the way in declaring donations, bills paid on its behalf, money given to officers by third parties which are intended for the party’s use etc. This would improve the quality of our democracy.

Neither of our main political parties wants transparency. Politics and politicians in Trinidad and Tobago have always been about the delicate balance between the public good and helping those who helped you. Maybe that is true of all politics, everywhere, but it takes on frightening significance here because it has always carried with it the whiff of corruption.

Most or all of the politicians I know are well-meaning. Many are truly hurt by the legacy of corruption our nation has had to endure. So how does our political culture make people so corrupt? How does the Orwellian transformation happen so fast?

The answer appears complicated, and the society does not appreciate the exhausting life of politicians, and how quickly temptation grows when an elected leader confronts the awful realisation that people really don’t want to change and deny personal responsibility for the necessary societal transformation.

Our only effective protection against this depressing slide is to have transparency about funding, to know who is standing behind the leader on the platform. Politics is a high-cost, high-stakes business, and people invest in parties the same way they invest in properties or stocks. It is time we knew these investors, and what their returns are.

Both the UNC and the PNM need to set the right example here. We have lots of time before the next general election. We need someone to step forward. We need to move beyond denial of allegations to proactively ensuring proper governance. These issues aren’t going away. We have to start somewhere.

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