What Milk?

When Jesse Unruh, the former speaker of the California Assembly, said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics” he was definitely not trying to titillate so much as ventilate a hidden truth. Behind every great man might be his mother but behind every great or not-so-great politician is his and other folks’ funds. The Bible might have valid grounds for decrying the love of money as the root of all evil but our present financial times demand lots of money liberally spent if you love the political limelight and the opportunities for financial mobility it provides. In this sense, money is not just the mother’s milk but the Lactogen, the Similac and the Gerber “Good Start” to every campaign and political career. Birds of a feather, the politicians and the donors, nestle together.

The problem is not the money itself. People donating to any cause, including politics, is not a problem. It is a patriotic enterprise, just like Captain Kirk’s starship, but many times the world is the old world of graft and corruption and the new life it seeks out is one of opulence.

The real issues are how the money is used or misused, spent or ill-spent, what it buys or can buy, and who benefits. For example, if I donate money to a particular individual, party or political cause and then I get a contract to build what in the US is called a "causeway" or raised road, people would and should raise a ruckus if the basis on which the contract is awarded is not objective, transparent or fair.

But what if people don’t know who donated the money? What if the funding is secret and the contracts are secret? What if who donates is a secret held by a small group within the political party but the contracts are for public goods and services? That is really the crux of the Caribbean campaign financing conundrum. The milk is flowing. We know that from the huge expenditures of media time and space, rum and roti, incentives and income supplementation, bribes and blockoramas but we never know who is paying and what they want in return.

Human nature makes one thing clear. Our behavior is based on self-interest or what is in it for us. Unless there is something in it for the people supplying the milk, some benefit, advantage or opportunity, the tits would run as dry as the Rupununi and Mahaicony five years ago and there would be a distinct lack of Similac stunting what has become a growth industry.

We have to assume that while the people who put in their pittances also want something, the people who put in the millions want more. No abstraction like better governance or equity would suffice for them. Contracts, concessions and considerations including sole, selective tenders from people who have sold out their souls to the devil Mammon alone will suffice. What are some of the present problems? In the United States there is an attempt to ensure that there are limits on how much a particular person or organization can donate and the authorities keep track, as far as possible, on who gives what to whom. It is on the public record. They can’t say for what but the link could be made later if necessary.

This is why Jesse Jackson Jr. is facing 30 months of jail time and his wife Sandi, 12 months. Jackson was deemed to have used US$750,000 of campaign donations to buy personal items including a Rolex. This is one benefit of regulating campaign financing – the donor is protected.

I read about a situation in Trinidad where a politician is said to have got millions of dollars for a staff Christmas party for his ministry and there is no accounting for how, or even if all, the money was spent. It seems that the major item on the menu was what Trinis call "milk cakes" – in this case a double whammy of mother's milk and dough. Worse, the donors cannot complain since it is no use crying over spilled milk. Having been taken for a ride, they just have to look for another horse that they could control and let it take them to the cash window.

In the Caribbean we have the worst of worlds as a consequence of the lack of laws governing campaign financing – unregulated procurement, secret slush funds and contributions, no transparency and many contracts awarded for which no rationale or reasons are given.

Many governments do not accept loans from international organisations because the financial regulations are too strict. We also have the best of worlds–we can learn from other countries, we can put in laws limiting the terms of public officials and we can insist on public disclosure of donors.

The problem is that there will always be what the Americans call people "on the make" and people "on the take" and they will forever find ways and means to circumvent the process.

Hearing about a debate about campaign financing in the parliament of one of the Caribbean countries, I remembered a story about a newly-appointed senator who in the full fury of his righteous indignation thundered, "Half of this Senate is made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!" Of course, all the other members demanded that the angry member withdraw his statement, or be removed from the remainder of the session. After a long pause, the angry member acquiesced. "Okay," he said, "I withdraw what I said. Half of this House is not made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!"

You can follow the money all you want and never get even close to discovering who bought what from whom and for how much. People expect politicians to be corrupt and no politician ever lost an election in the Caribbean for having more money than he or she should have before, during and after the elections. Cynical as that sounds, all it means is that we need more investigative journalism, more watchdogs and more brave souls who are lactose intolerant.

*Tony Deyal was last seen quoting P.J. O’Rourke, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

       

Tony Deyal

About Tony Deyal

Tony Deyal is a Caribbean journalist who believes laughter is the best medicine.



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