Md. Ali Ashraf
A legislator is at once several persons. He is a representative of his constituency, a member of the legislature, sometimes a minister, a party man, and often a member or spokesman of particular interest or a community.
His obligations as an elected representative are many. These are not always easy to reconcile to the people of the constituency, to the party that he belongs to, and to the nation as a whole. He has to maintain a two-way communication link between the people and the legislature.
He is a bridge of information between various things that are done in the legislature and the measures that the government of the day brings up from time to time. In this complex situation a legislator in discharging his responsibility may suffer from conflict between his moral and legal obligations.
Ethics and ethical standards
A high level of ethical standards has consistently been demanded from specific groups of professionals whose work assumes a direct responsibility for specific aspects of the lives of the clients they serve. This group includes lawyers, medical doctors, accountants, teachers, and others.
What constitutes ethical conduct has crossed the boundary of being only requirement of behaviour in public life, and is also increasingly applied to a broad range of aspects of the private life of a range of persons where personal circumstances could interfere with their judgment.
If an individual is supposed to defend the public interest, any suspicion of private interests being in conflict or taking over a genuine and unconditional decision-making process cannot be accepted. This has led to the establishment of a set of measures enforcing disclosure and abstention.
Beyond different cultures, religious beliefs and political orientations of democratic societies, there is a common agreement over the minimum requirements of conduct required of an elected representative or of any person in the government structure. Arguably, however, among all public servants, parliamentarians are subject to particularly strict ethical standards with regard to their behaviour and actions.
Indeed, parliamentarians have been the first to draw, promulgate and apply to themselves the codes of conduct that, at a later stage, have been extended to ministers, other government officials, judges, and magistrates.
Members of parliament are specifically responsible for making high level decisions, including deciding on the allocation and expenditure of resources of the nation, validating appointments, undertaking public works, and determining a wide range of taxes.
Collectively they represent the legislative power of the state and have the constitutional function of controlling and overseeing the government. They are known as law-makers, and represent both the nation as a whole and, for each individual member of parliament, his or her constituents.
A high standard of ethics is probably a sine qua non of parliamentary democracy. Democracy functions on the basis of consent of the governed who rightly demand that those governing are fit to do so and more interested in the public than their private interest.
Another important reason that has been argued for the elaboration of a severe code of conduct for parliamentarians is the range of privileges awarded to such persons for a better discharge of their various official duties. These special powers have a direct relation to their special obligations to meet the expectations of the public in relation to behaviour and moral integrity.
Revival of ethical standards
The discussion of ethical standards of public servants has reached a particularly high level of significance in recent years. Perhaps one of the most pressing reasons for this is that public lives, and indeed private lives, of public officials have become increasingly subject to the scrutiny of the mass media. This is especially so in democratic societies where freedom of speech is a fundamental principle. Together with this, the general public has enjoyed increased access to the media, enabling them to make informed decisions about their public representatives.
The purpose and the best intention of this revival of ethics in political life is certainly to recover the trust of the public opinion in their democratic institutions. If the parties want people to vote and take an active part in supporting democracy, the public must have confidence that those elected will always serve the public interest and not use public positions to serve private interests. The exposure of corruption and similar abuses in political life has certainly brought with it increasing levels of mistrust and a strong appeal by the public for high morality of parliamentary representatives.
Conflicts of interest
As codes of conduct increasingly establish closely regulated patterns of behaviour for parliamentarians, conflicts of interest have accordingly arisen. The main conflict relates to the separation of public interests and private benefits. This is a conflict for which the resolution is relatively clear and which demands accurate regulation.
In 1811, the British Parliament ruled: "No member who has a direct pecuniary interest in a question shall be allowed to vote upon it." But it distinguished an interest "in common with the rest of his Majesty's subjects or on a matter of state policy." The vote of a member would not be disallowed solely because of such interest.
In Britain, a member may vote on all business before the house except private legislation where he has a direct pecuniary interest. In the light, the speaker ruled in 1983 that members who were solicitors might vote on the home-buyers bill as the bill was on a matter of public policy. But on a private bill to regulate Lloyds, members of that corporation were advised not to vote. In Britain, although members may vote freely on all matters of public business, they are required to disclose any relevant pecuniary interest they have in the matter in debate.
This practice we find also in India. If a member has any personal, pecuniary, or direct interest in a matter to be decided by the house, he is expected to declare the nature of that interest before taking part in the proceedings. Under Rule 371 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha, the vote of a member in a division in the house may be challenged on the grounds that he had a personal, pecuniary, or direct interest in the matter.
Rules of Procedures of Parliament of the People's Republic of Bangladesh under Rule 188(2) also provide: "No member shall be appointed to a committee who has a personal, pecuniary or direct interest in any matter which may be considered by that committee."
We can see that a well-defined code of conduct for the members of parliament is present in many countries. In order to establish the ethical standards of parliamentarians it is emphasised that all parliamentarians should have to disclose their assets and liabilities, source of income and position held, and also the interest of their spouse and dependants.
However, there are nevertheless further conflicts for which the resolutions for the individual and for the house as a whole are far more complex. The first of such conflicts relates to special duty that MPs have towards their constituency, which they represent and for which they assume a certain degree of responsibility. This duty, however, is not always easy to combine with the party membership.
For example, it is possible that a collective decision made by the party may not favour the concrete geographic area represented by a member or the economic priorities of this area. Another area of conflict for parliamentarians can occur when the liberty of the conscience of an individual is faced with a contradictory party decision.
In order to establish the ethical standards of the members of parliament, some argue that politics should be treated as a profession and parliamentarians should works on full-time basis, which could help them to some extent being detached from everyday life. Some believe that unethical practices in the civil services as well as among members of parliament is due to the poor conditions of service, so it is important to raise the standards of living for the whole of society. It is argued that the parliamentarian should be given attractive remuneration to ensure that right people are attracted to policies.
Inflow of money for election is another huge problem for establishing ethical standards. Some argue that funds for election could come from the government, but this may not be possible for most countries. In order to avoid influence over parliamentarians, donation to private individuals need to be restricted and all election donations should be received at the party level. Ethical standards of the politicians should be considered within the ethical political environment with the question of how politicians come to office and how parties finance themselves.
The concept of open government needs to be examined. Public committee could be one way to demonstrate clearly how decisions are reached. The ombudsmen's office could be another powerful tool for bringing openness in government. Issues of accountability, compliance with standards, disclosure, etc could be left to committees.
At the beginning of the parliamentary tradition, ethical standards were not regulated other than in a body of accepted customs, basically putting emphasis on the good manners and etiquette of the members. With the development of mass media societies and with the increased power of central governments, the general public is being better informed of public decisions. It could be argued that these decisions now have a more direct impact on their daily lives. We have to keep in our mind that the world has entered a new millennium of globalisation where everything will be measured on the basis of merit.
Cases of mismanagement and corruption have been widely publicised, casting mistrust over the democratic institutions, parliament, and the government. The legislative power has been the first to react to this criticism in an attempt to recover the trust of the public, converting the unwritten ethical codes into formalised codes of conduct involving detailed regulations.
The main objective of the codes has been the promotion of transparency and accountability, attempting to ensure that public representatives defend public interest alone and that such work is clearly recognised by the public. The codes have also attempted to ensure that the salaries, allowances, and privileges of the members provide adequate means to encourage effective work.
Corruption exists and we will always have to live with it. But we should do our best to reduce corruption from every sphere of life. As politicians are leaders of the society, they must set an example of probity and they must behave in a most dignified manner. They are the most accountable persons in any society.
In order to maintain the highest tradition of parliamentary life and to enhance accountability and transparency, it is expected that all members shall exercise the functions of their office honestly, impartially, and in the public interest. They must work hard to enhance the poor perception of themselves by introducing laws, practices, and ethical standards acceptable to the society.
The code of conduct for the members of parliament could be well-defined, but it is up to the individual to do the right thing. Parliaments have at least reacted to open criticism in a manner that is not only comparable to any other ethical requirements in different professional trades but which is perhaps even more demanding of its members.
Photos: Amirul Rajiv
Prof. Md. Ali Ashraf, a former Deputy Speaker of Parliament, has been elected to the Ninth Parliament.