Ragoonath on PM’s criticism: Ethics Council is a toothless bulldog

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Dr Bishnu Ragoonath –

THE Council for Responsible Political Behaviour is just “a toothless bulldog,” but the general public adjudges matters of the day, council chairman Dr Bishnu Ragoonath told Newsday on Friday, following the Prime Minister’s remark online on Thursday, “An ethical council without ethics and steeped in bias is to be ignored for what it is.”

The council earlier on Thursday upheld UNC complaints against the Dr Rowley’s speech of July 15, at a PNM rally at San Fernando

On Rowley’s allegations that gunmen had been sent to shoot up Port of Spain – which the UNC claimed were directed at its members – the council found the PM’s claim was unsubstantiated.

On the UNC’s second complaint, that a PNM election flyer was an improper inducement to voters to visit a candidate’s office for saying, “Apply now, grants available,” the council said it gave the impression of state funds being channelled through campaign offices.

The council’s goals, in its code of ethical conduct, are to foster democracy, promote respect for human rights, encourage participation in the electoral process, and promote an election process free from violence. The code drafters included the Inter Religious Organisation, TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce TT Publishers and Broadcasters Association plus six major religious organisations, with TT’s main political parties being its signatories.

Ragoonath told Newsday, “The council by round robin decided that we would not answer him (Rowley) with a tit-for-tat kind of thing. He’s entitled to take a position.

“We, however, have a task to do, and that is to monitor the election campaign which we will continue to do, whether he appreciates what we are doing or not.” Ragoonath already noted other issues flowing from Rowley’s comments.

“People are saying we have not chastised the UNC and we have not attacked the NTA and whoever else.

“One of the things noted in both releases we submitted was that these releases were done following deliberations based on complaints which were received.”

Dr Keith Rowley –

He said he expected a mass of complaints from PNM supporters about supposed breaches by the UNC, as a result.

He added, “I’m not sure if that mass of complaints will be tempered by the fact of the comments made by the Prime Minister, who said ignore the council.

“If he has already said to ignore the council, will his supporters ignore? We’ll take it as it comes.”

“I don’t know if we’re going in circles (and) how we’re going to deal with this.

“If there are, however, complaints about other issues we will deal with them as they arise.”

Newsday asked if Rowley might exit as a signatory to the code.

Ragoonath replied, “Signing and endorsing the code is a voluntary process. There’s nobody forcing anybody to sign on (and) nobody’s forcing anybody to leave.

“However, this becomes the real issue: If you leave, voluntarily, or if you refuse to sign, is this not sending another message? We’ll leave it there. That’s for the population to decide.”

He said the electorate was the final arbiter in everything the council did.

“We have no power of imposing any sanction. We are a toothless bulldog and we emphasise that all the time.”

The electorate must decide if parties’ actions were in the best interest of advancing democracy.

Ragoonath said even new political parties have been contacted, given a copy of the code and invited to submit complaints of breaches.

“In fact one of the parties which is not a signatory was one of the first parties to issue a complaint to us! And we dealt with it! We did not ignore it because they are not a signatory.

“Whether the PNM decides to stay or go, we continue to do a job of monitoring a campaign and if people continue to complain and there is merit in their complaint, we will report, regardless of which political party, leader or candidate.”

Newsday asked if anything in Rowley’s statement needed a denial (that the council allegedly lacked ethics, was biased and should be ignored).

Ragoonath said, “I’ve been a political commentator for years and people have drawn their perceptions and their decisions as to what is my position or what is not my position. Some people will feel I am biased one way or the other. I have no problem with that.

“However I draw serious concern and oppose and categorically deny that the other members of my council – all of whom are upstanding citizens in ethical behaviour and who have their integrity intact – all fall under the same brush of being unethical.

“That I think is the sad part of the commentary by the PM. It is sad because he has brushed anybody and everybody, just for being members of the council, with the brush that’s being directed at me.”

He said he had no problem with himself being attacked, but lamented any criticism of a council whose members included Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie, Dr Olabusi, Rev Prof Carlyle Pemberton, Dr Gabrielle Hosein, and the late Imam Imtiaz Ali. “All of these people have been literally castigated, as being without ethics. That, I take strong objection to.” He said Ali had recently died but before that had vetted and approved the council’s statement issued last Monday.