By Lara Pickford-Gordon
The Code of Ethical Political Conduct was signed by political parties on Monday at Archbishop’s House, Port of Spain.
The Code, which was prepared by representatives of civil society in 2014, seeks to foster democracy, promote respect for human rights, encourage participation in the electoral process and promote an election process free from violence.
Some amendments have been made to the wording of a few clauses of the original Code however, the major changes are the inclusion of “The Code Keepers” i.e. political parties which are signatories are to nominate a representative for this group. They will serve as an intermediary between the Council and political parties; and “The Role of the Public”, to report breaches to the Council and indicate examples of exemplary political behaviour within an election campaign.
Signing for their respective parties were: Iqubal Hydal, secretary, Education and Research, Congress of the People; Davendranath Tancoo, general secretary, and Peter Kanhai, chairman, United National Congress; and Harold Learmond-Criqui, Democratic Development Party leader. Other parties were to visit and sign at another time.
Delivering remarks, Archbishop Jason Gordon, chair of the committee of Founding Organisations said, “The Code is saying that we agree to live as responsible citizens in this country, and that means we will put boundaries on what we consider freedom for the sake of a nation that can be far better from what we have been experiencing”.
He highlighted the recent escalation of crime and violence in the society commenting that it was “clear to all of us the way we have been doing the business of the country cannot continue”. Each sector of the country “has to do something”.
He said “religious” had a lot of soul-searching to do and suggested that there was “negligence on our part” for things to reach the present state, and non-governmental organisations also had to see the gaps in their work. “Government has a lot of work to do and the whole political system,” he added.
Archbishop Gordon said the “common good” of the country had suffered for far too long and called for collective effort to “bring the country back”.
He continued, “The Code is saying ‘Let us lift the value system by which we have operated to a new level so we show to the whole nation especially our children that we are capable of the high levels of democracy that we have inherited and that we can witness to that and set a new path for Trinidad and Tobago’.” He asked attendees, “Everybody in that?” They responded “Yes”.
Public can report code breaches
The Archbishop said it was important for other institutions to also have codes and to live by them because the result would be “an incredible Trinidad and Tobago”.
Dr Bishnu Ragoonath, Chair of the Council for Responsible Political Behaviour, which will monitor and evaluate adherence to the Code, said it was about changing a “culture”. He recalled as a guest on a television station to discuss the Code, someone called-in to say ‘but you are trying to stop we bacchanal, that is bacchanal for we. That is what we want. You want to tell people to behave decently’.
Ragoonath said, “for us as a society we have to raise the level of the politics and we can’t just continue mud-slinging and bashing people.”
He explained the Council is not a permanent body for the five years of any administration but monitors for nine months, three months before an election and six months after, “to see if the parties who have contended would have done their financial returns and those sorts of things so we can report on that.”
The Code had to be in effect and Council members appointed with Local Government elections due this year after the terms of local bodies to expire. Ragoonath said the Council would begin its work at the end of August.
The Council monitors media reports and also invites the public to report any breaches of the Code.
“We as a Council will look at the complaint, the issues and determine whether the Code has been breached or not, once we recognise there is breach of the Code we do two things, one, we report back to the Code Keepers letting them know, and the Code Keepers will include hopefully a representative of the offending party. They will take it back to their party and they will discuss…” Ragoonath said. He disclosed that for the last elections representatives of parties were the first to admit members of their own party breached the Code.
Previously, political parties were on the Council for Responsible Political Behaviour. With the introduction of Code Keepers, the Council will hold regular meetings with the Code Keepers to keep them informed of the issues considered by the Council and hear any concerns the parties have in relation to activities of other political parties.
Commenting on what action can be taken for violations, Archbishop Gordon said with the Code Keepers the onus is on the parties first to call the discipline. “Our hope is that call among the Code Keepers will create a sense of consciousness within the party so you will go back to your party and say last week or so and so happened we are being called to account.”
He said if there is no impact then the process moves to the next level.
Ragoonath said the Council has a responsibility to report to the general public and periodically did so “every other week, sometimes every three weeks”. Although it can inform the public about breaches committed, it was for the population to determine how they responded.
“We don’t have anything more than moral suasion,” he said.
The other Council members are: Deputy Chair Bishop Clive Abdulah, Secretary Leela Ramdeen, Dr Beverly Ann-Marie Beckles, Dr Gabrielle Hosein, Brother Noble Khan, Dr Olabisi Kuboni, Dr Eastlyn McKenzie, and Ralph Peter.
The Founding Organisations are: Anglican Church, Anjuman Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Association, Communications Workers’ Union/Federation of Independent Trade Unions, Inter-Religious Organisaiton, Methodist Church, Network of NGOs, Presbyterian Church, RC Archdiocese of Port of Spain, Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce, T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association, T&T Transparency Institute.