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Council for Responsible Political Behavior strives to maintain Code of Ethics in the politics

By Klysha Best

While it may seem that politicians live according to their own rules and regulations when compared to the ‘average Joe’, there is the Code of Ethical Political Conduct that they are asked to follow. That’s where the Council for Responsible Political Behavior (CRPB) comes in.

The Council was thrust into the spotlight recently, after the Prime Minister queried its validity after it had issued a statement critical of two remarks he had made at a PNM rally in San Fernando on July 15.

The Council is the brainchild of Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris CSSp and is chaired by political analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath.

Speaking on the July 28 episode of The Catholic News television programme, Altos, Dr Ragoonath revealed that on seeing the way in which politics was headed, then Archbishop Harris as well as several other civil society organisations came together and drafted a code in 2014.

They took it to the political parties and these parties endorsed the code.

Dr Ragoonath said: “It was only after these political parties endorsed the Code that the civil society organisations, led by Archbishop Harris, went out there to find members to serve on a council, which would monitor the adherence to the Code. So that is the context in which we have come on.”

According to Dr Ragoonath, they are there simply to look at what is happening on the campaign trail within the campaign period.

There are nine members of the CRPB, and Dr Ragoonath said what they do is try to look at what is happening during the campaign, follow what is being published in the media (all forms), but they also depend upon the citizenry and the political parties to report where there are violations.

“Once they have done so, we would then sit as a council, review the evidence and if the case demands, we will then issue a release saying whether a party has breached the Code or not.”

The Council is Dr Ragoonath as chairman, Ralph Peter as deputy chairman, and former Chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice, Leela Ramdeen as secretary. Other members are Dr Eastlyn McKenzie, Dr Olabisi Kuboni, Dr Gabrielle Hosein, Dr Beverly Ann-Marie Beckles and Prof Carlisle Pemberton.

Dr Ragoonath said because they do not issue releases on breaches made outside of an election campaigning period, it poses a challenge to them and affects how people view them and their legitimacy.

“One of the things that we have attempted to do since the inception of the council, is try to do an education process for the citizens of this country.”

“In 2015, we had both the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express print the Code and distribute it within their newspapers, and we followed that process in 2020 for the general elections.

“We try to circulate the Code as widely as possible. We also have the website up and running and we invite people to look at the website, look at the entire Code and ensure that they are acquainted with what is acceptable or not.”


Picong or irresponsible behaviour?

Dr Ragoonath pointed out that all the Council can do is work strictly in accordance with what the code has prescribed.

“If something is deemed derogatory, it cannot simply be normal picong.” Dr Ragoonath recalled during the interview with Altos anchor Neil Parsanlal, “In 2015, when we first launched, I appeared on a television programme, and one of the callers asked how we could stop the bacchanal in politics. They said we were wasting time.

“People go to meetings to hear the bacchanal. But the point is that we have to ask ourselves what is an acceptable standard that we as a people would want to accept as we move forward in the development of our country and of our democracy.”

Dr Ragoonath said we need to draw a line at some point in time. He said the members of the Council are all specialists in their own field and who have a level of integrity and ethics and are accepted within society, and they say what is acceptable.

However, as a political analyst who regularly comments on the political issues of the day, Dr Ragoonath himself has been viewed as having some sort of bias. This, he denied.

He admitted that this was a concern he had when he was initially asked by Archbishop Harris to head the Council.

“When I told Archbishop Harris my concerns, he told me ‘this is why I want you here, you will bring a level of objectivity’.”

Dr Ragoonath said he has maintained his impartiality.

When asked how comfortable he is with the behaviour of our politicians during this Local Government Election campaign, Dr Ragoonath said he is not comfortable at all.

“Our politicians try to use every loophole in the book to say that they could breach ‘ethical’ behaviour  and we have to say enough is enough.”

Here is a look at the Council’s list of dos and don’ts.

Parties should not:

  • Make false or defamatory allegations in print or speech in connection with an election in respect of any party, its candidates, representatives, or members.
  • Seek to assassinate the character of or make defamatory comments about any individual, family, professional group, or section of the community.
  • Abuse a position of power, privilege, or influence, including parental, patriarchal, traditional or employment authority to influence the conduct or outcome of an election.
  • Permit the use and abuse of State resources for political campaigns.
  • Indulge in negative campaigning or advertising or any action which would bring the political process into disrepute.
  • Criticise aspects of the private lives of candidates, their families, not connected with the public activities of the leaders or candidates of other parties.
  • Issue advertisements or other marketing material the cost of which is borne out of public funds.

Parties should:

  • Maintain the highest moral principles and ethical standards with respect to their conduct;
  • Promote and enforce respect, tolerance, harmony, and peace among their supporters and the general public;
  • Refrain from practices that promote divisiveness in the Society and committing to the removal of any structures (behavioural, cultural, social, or organisational) which reinforce divisiveness;
  • Confine their criticism of other Political Parties to policies and programmes, past record and work;
  • Uphold the integrity of the electoral process;
  • Ensure that their conduct is above reproach.