LETTER: The Infection Killing Antiguan Democracy

The content originally appeared on: Antigua News Room

A handout is some benefit often freely given by the government, charities, or other groups to the needy. Poverty, we are told, is what creates the so-called need for politicians to give handouts, both requested and unrequested to their constituents. That is a lie. This so-called need is created by the absence of the state. In a modern developing society such as this, we accept the idea that in as far as possible, there ought to be a social safety net of which the state is the primary sponsor. 

We also accept that the state’s capacity is not endless, and that civil society plays an invaluable role in helping to alleviate poverty. But what we have in Antigua and Barbuda is a situation in which both the role of the state and of civil society in creating a social safety net has been partially usurped by politicians and by political parties.

The absence of the state and its replacement with political agents creates the opportunity for what we term transactional politics, which is another phrase for clientelism. It means the transfer of finance, goods, or favours to voters by politicians in exchange for political support. This is why we must be categorical in saying that it is NOT the role of political actors to sponsor or organize regular or seasonal benefit schemes at the community level.

Being Both Candidate & Patron (In the Charitable Sense) Offends the Principles of Modern Democracy

A basic premise of our democratic system is that voters are making an informed choice on the basis of a current administration’s performance and on the alternative agendas articulated by competing opposition parties. In this system, a political candidate is meant to campaign on the basis of their and their party’s philosophy, specific policy intentions, track record, qualifications, and community involvement. These are some of the legitimate areas in which we should ask candidates to be competitive.

It is obscene for constituents to demand that a candidate or an MP routinely raise non-state capital or make personal finance available to fund works, projects, and benefit initiatives at the community level. This practice corrupts the democratic process. It makes money a basis for electors to judge the worthiness of candidates, as opposed to considering chiefly the legitimate issues raised earlier in this section.

If you want to be a philanthropist or a patron to a community, then may the heavens bless your heart. But it ought to disqualify you from being a political candidate as the money you have spent on a voter will surely influence their vote. Our democratic system works when citizens vote for the candidates they believe have articulated the best solutions, demonstrated the most integrity, and possess the best track record and the best qualifications – not when they vote on the basis of which candidate’s spending was most impactful on them.

The law acknowledges the corrupting influence of money on elections as it should in any civilized democracy. It is why our (largely unenforced) laws prohibit candidates from providing anything of value to voters during an election – food, drink, entertainment, money, employment, and other valuable consideration, etc. The problem is that the prohibition period is merely a few weeks, literally from the point of the writ of election, up until election day. It is a glaring loophole which politicians have maintained to allow them to spend lavishly on their constituents in the five year interim without legal consequence.

The Goodness of Your Heart? Bullsh*t.

Politicians often defend the handout culture by saying that they are merely “assisting” constituents and that they do not expect political support in return. That assertion is quite frankly bullsh*t. It is demonstrably false. For example, Prime Minister Gaston Browne was heard on his station, Pointe FM, criticizing his losing candidates from the 2023 general election for essentially not spending enough money on constituents who needed it.

Specifically, he made reference to scenarios that he claimed he had been made aware of, where constituents made requests for material support or money donations from his candidates, only to be turned down or ignored – something he considered to be a factor responsible for the Labour Party’s near defeat in the general election. But hold on. I thought they gave out of the goodness of their heart. Why has the Labour Leader publicly equated a lack of spending to a loss of political support?

After the 2018 election, the PM took to his station to declare that losing All Saints East & St. Luke candidate Colin James was the author of his own demise because he was allotted a sum of money, and had he done “what he was supposed to do”, he would have swung the outcome in his favour. The nation still ponders what the PM meant by that.

You see, this is the slither of beauty in the ugliness that is Gaston Browne. Despite being dishonest, callous, disrespectful, and a shameless bully, his near total incapacity to temper his public utterances often provides us with ample evidence of the political rottenness that is often denied by his more verbally circumspect ministerial colleagues. In simpler terms, he often steps in sh*t by saying whatever he wants. No other minister has demonstrated such a capacity to talk themselves into controversy with near monthly regularity. But we digress.

The Prime Minister himself has told us quite plainly that in his view, you get votes by spending money on people. He himself has gone as far as to handout unsolicited cash to random people. In December 2022, he was filmed in his constituency casually walking the streets thrusting hundred dollar bills into the hands of anyone who made eye contact with him. Interestingly, when he noticed one bystander recording him, he objected, and soon continued along his way – an indication that he perhaps has retained some understanding of the concept of shame.

Obviously, It Invites Corruption

Where do you think they are getting the money from? Their salaries? Please, let’s be serious. In order to fund handouts and transactional-type politics, candidates and MPs must raise capital continuously. This invites corruption. Firstly, they may go to political financiers. Those financiers are not altruists. They are bankrolling candidates so that they can get their rewards if those candidates make it into office. Quid pro quo.

Notice that when political parties change office, so too does the list of contractors to whom the government is likely to give projects? Ever wonder why the government pays inordinate sums to certain landlords when their buildings aren’t worth the money, or worse, are full of rot and mold, and are slowly killing public servants? Ever wonder why this person got government approval with lightning speed when most normally wait a while? Notice the concessions or the stamp duty waived? What you are sometimes witnessing is a politician paying their debts.

Secondly, the desire to raise capital may drive some dishonest politicians to seek kickbacks – illicit payments and fees demanded in return for arranging contracts, waivers, concessions, approvals and other government actions in favour of whomever comes asking. Politicians in office often set up means by which these payments can be made to look legitimate – a payment to a consultancy firm, or to a real estate firm, or you could just outright rent a politician’s house as a way of getting the money into their bank account.

Transactional politics turns politicians into voracious dealmakers and constant salesmen. When in government, they will sell anything – state land, state property, stake in state enterprises, regulatory approvals, tax concessions, waivers – anything to get near enough to an investor or business person to get some money into the constituency/election war chest.

The means they will find are endless. In opposition, they will seek out ways to extract money from the state – over invoicing for example. How many dead dogs per week? Transactional politics also makes candidates and MPs feel a sense of entitlement to thieve. Think about it. When they spend years in opposition, hard up for money, and constantly raising finances to compete with the ruling party, priority number one  when they actually take government is to restock the war chest, so that they never go penniless again, in or out of office.

Usurping the Role of the State

No one disputes the existence of poverty in Antigua and Barbuda. No one disputes that poverty creates neediness in people. But why are candidates so often being turned to, to meet the material needs of needy people? The answer is quite glaring: The state is inadequate. And who is responsible for that inadequacy? The very politicians who appear with pockets full of cash to help “assist” you.

The fact that the state is unable to lead an effective and comprehensive community level intervention to address what ruling party politicians themselves argue is “genuine need” amongst the people they represent is an indictment on the performance of the executive branch of government.

MPs are elected to Parliament. Candidates are seeking office in Parliament. When did it become the job of legislators to raise money and administer benefit initiatives? Am I the only one who understands this to be the sole purview of the executive branch? Is it the job of judges to levy taxes to fund improvements at the court house??? No? So, why has it become the job of legislative representatives to raise funds to govern their own constituencies or handout benefits?? Where is the state in the form of the executive branch? 

MPs in Antigua and Barbuda have admitted to paying tuition, medical bills, utility bills, home improvement costs, and so on. Why should any MP be called upon to do any of those things when the state should have well-organised, well-funded programmes to deliver these benefits to those who qualify?

Does the Social Transformation Ministry have a local unit in each constituency or across parishes where needy residents can speak to nonpartisan public servants, in person or virtually? These should be people who keep track of requests, process them by need, and approve them as speedily as possible, relying on budgeted public funds, and not relying on shady finance raised by politicians from God knows where.

What is their excuse? They don’t have enough workers? They told us the public service was bloated. They don’t have enough money? Can’t be. This is the same government that abolished PIT, wiping out tens of millions in revenue, telling us they had ample funds to meet the needs of the people, and it wasn’t just a tax break for the more well-off among us. Were they lying?

Every budget speech, the Prime Minister admits to the tens of millions of dollars lost in discretionary import duty waivers that he and his officials approve. Surely, he wouldn’t be doing that knowing that the government does not have funds to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, right? So, what is the excuse?

 

They Choose to Keep it That Way

“What have you done for me personally?” This is a question that former MP Lennox Weston once told Parliament his constituents regularly asked. Therein lies the answer to why successive administrations have willfully replaced the state with the party at the community level – “assistance” from an MP or caretaker is “personal” whereas getting it from the state is not.

If a government were to transfer the burden of all the social support MPs and caretakers provide to the state using the impartial administrative work of public servants and relying on budgeted state revenue, it would rob politicians of the opportunity to create in you a sense of personal gratitude towards them when they give you that “assistance” from their own pockets. They want you to be grateful to them personally. They love the leg up it gives them when they can brand what they give you as coming from the party or from them personally.

They therefore continue to refuse to establish meaningful local government or locally administered benefit schemes and instead subject the most vulnerable to the indignity of having to beg politicians for personal assistance – all so that they can say, “Remember what I did for you? Remember what the party did for you? I know I have your vote.” They may tire of the burden of it at times, but they have never moved to change it because it gives them the opportunity to exploit the neediness of the worst-off to buy political loyalty.

Demands Become Onerous & the Needy Give Way to the Greedy 

The natural tendency of this kind of transactional behaviour is that it grows in scale. Soon, what began as demands for material handouts for assistance with life’s basic necessities become onerous demands for luxuries – larger and larger sums of money, contacts from government work, major political favours, waivers, etc.

These are the people who straight up just tell a politician “my vote costs $$$”. They know that many politicians are morally bankrupt and desperate enough to win that they will give them whatever they ask for, provided that the stakes are high and an election is near. These are the type of citizens that transactional politics creates – those who do not actually need help but simply see an opportunity to cash in on the moral depravity of the travelling salesmen asking for their vote.

This is why it would be far more responsible and efficient to have a budgeted, state-driven social support system at the community level where needs are formally assessed. The hyenas who are simply out for advantage could be turned down. Instead, what we often have have is  greedy people making obscene demands on politicians, especially at election time, as those politicians try to increase their political support.

Keeping Track of Poverty

It warrants saying that if your elected officials, particularly those in government, were as seriously interested in combating poverty as they were about staying in office, they would welcome the introduction of parish or constituency based social services units to execute the functions which have been so far described, for the simple reason that it would eventually give them the clearest picture of what poverty in Antigua and Barbuda actually looks like.

If those seeking a benefit were actually interviewed, or even asked to fill out a form, we would be gaining official statistics on the demographics of who is making what requests, with what regularity, in what area, in what age range, from a family of how many, with what employment level, with what income level, with what education level, etc. Such information would allow the government to actually take a more targeted approach to reducing poverty by better designing its various programmes to help people in specific brackets.

It Is Just Our Culture & It Cannot Be Changed

 

I won’t even waste time under this heading. Anyone who resigned themselves to this point of view is a waste of a brain – someone who has not been, and will not be relevant to national change at any point in their lifetime. My one guarantee to you dear reader is that it will not be by their efforts that you see a better Antigua and Barbuda. Tell them to f*** off.

 

Three Simple Steps

In summary, if a government truly wanted to adequately address neediness, remove unrealistic burdens from MPs and candidates, and make voter politics more transparent, it need only adopt these three simple measures.

Firstly, pass a law to prohibit MPs, candidates, parties or proxies from giving voters any form of valuable consideration at any time. Make it illegal for politicians to give voters anything except their time and their vision for the country. The only reason that sounds so outlandish is because we have become so slavishly accustomed to what is now the norm.

Secondly, pass a law that requires MPs or anyone seeking public office, who wishes to contribute funds to any specific cause, to do so indirectly. They must donate the funds to a non-partisan, unaffiliated charitable organisation of their choosing from an approved list of organisations. That organisation would in turn execute whatever initiative the politician is seeking to support.

They should also have the option of making a donation to a designated state-managed fund, from which an equivalent sum will be used by a state-run programme to administer some form of benefit for the community. They ought to be required to declare all the sources from which they raised the donated funds.

Suddenly, when they can no longer get political mileage from paying bills, fees and tuition; and handing out school bags, food vouchers, food hampers, kitchen appliances, free clothing and raw cash, they will suddenly have to start talking policy, and taking the government to task for its failures – which is their job.

Finally, as we have discussed throughout, the government needs to deploy teams to the various constituencies or parishes to administer its benefit schemes at the community level on a budgeted, needs-based basis, so that residents do not have to ask politicians for direct assistance.

Politicians should also be mandated by law to refer any request for material or monetary assistance to the local team responsible for administering state benefits in that locality and to inform the person asking that it is illegal for a person seeking public office to give a voter any valuable consideration.

If your elected officials are unwilling to implement these simple measures, it’s because they’re a bunch of dishonest goons who find it much easier to buy votes than to actually run a country properly and try and get re-elected on that basis. Now, there are many out there who are just frothing at the mouth with reasons while everything described above can never work. It can work. Stop supporting bullsh*t and give it a chance.

Some of you will argue that in other countries, politicians are not prohibited from giving handouts, so why should we have such a prohibition here? Reply: The fact that bad practice occurs in another place is not an argument for us to be at peace with it here. Some of you will argue that it is wrong to deny politicians the opportunity to spend money on their constituents. Reply: The system described above does in fact allow politicians to spend money on their constituents. It just requires them to do so indirectly and to declare where they got the money.

A Preemptive Response to the Sycophantic, Reprobate Political Cheerleaders

Here come the cheerleaders and the hacks. They will bleat: “No no no. What you’re describing can never happen. You are describing utopia! Antigua can never be like that! It’s just the way things are.” Beware of people like this. They are either intellectually dishonest or genuinely unenlightened.

They are vampires. Their job is to suck the hope out of you until you are as myopic as them, and willing to abandon all faith in your people and resign yourself to accepting the corrupt practices they want you to believe cannot change. They are a wretched and insufferable pack of hyenas. They want material progress without moral progress.

Several of them will no doubt appear in the comment section below. This is where they are most comfortable, waiting for the slightest whiff of dissatisfaction or the suggestion that better is possible. They swoop in with lies and fallacies. “Everything is wonderful. No change is needed. Change is impossible,” they will harp. They are totally nauseating  people. They are like the pus that ejects from a swollen pimple. There are a blight to all good governance. Do not dwell on them too long, lest you turn into a pillar of salt. 

Ernest J. Farfingbottom

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