Posted in Legislative Analysis, Political Institutions on Nov 15, 2019

This article continues our short series taking a look at parliamentary ethics and conduct.

The first article in this series took a look at the Hluttaw Rights Committee’s discussion about a Code of Ethics for parliamentarians and offered a critique on their proposed principles.

It is important that all institutions operate according to shared set of ethical principles or values. For public bodies this is especially important, as these institutions are required to operate in the public interest.

But once MPs have come together and agreed a list of principles they wish to uphold, as the Hluttaw Rights Committee has done, what next? Is it enough to simply agree high-level principles?

The answer is, of course, no. In order for a code of ethics to be effective, there must be a process to turn principles into detailed rules. Such rules are required to clearly explain what conduct and behaviour is, and is not, acceptable.

Unfortunately, in politics there is often a trend for not going much beyond the buzzwords, and Myanmar is no exception. But we are hopeful that once the ethical principles for the new parliamentary code have been agreed, MPs will take the next necessary step and put them into practice with a clear set of rules. As one guide on parliamentary ethics puts it:

‘Agreement over the principles for parliamentary behaviour provides a base from which to build an ethics and conduct regime. But because such principles are general, they can be interpreted in different ways. Politicians may continue to have different understandings as to which activities are acceptable, and which are illicit. Parliaments need to build understanding and consensus around detailed new rules.’

The most important ways that ethical behaviour is ensured is through rules concerning conflicts of interest, i.e. ‘where the private interests of a politician conflict with the public interests of those they were elected to represent’.

Everyone has conflicts of interest. All those in public office are involved in activities outside the workplace that may overlap with their professional responsibilities. Consider the following fictional examples:

  • A senior official in the Ministry of Construction is involved in a decision to allocate funding for new bridges. One of the proposed projects is in their hometown.

  • The father of an MP on a Parliamentary Committee reviewing a budget Bill proposal to allow funding for school textbooks and stationery, is the owner a large printing business that supplies books to schools.

  • An official responsible to review proposals to give a contract for building a new hospital to a foreign company, was last month taken on an all-expenses paid international visit to that company’s headquarters to learn about new construction technology.

  • An MP who owns a chicken farm puts forward a motion in the Hluttaw for lower tariffs on chicken feed imports.

It is impossible to remove conflicts of interest. All holders of public office, as with any other citizen, may have various interests and responsibilities. What is important is that a) what constitutes a conflict is clearly understood, b) that conflicts are managed, and c) that they are disclosed to the public, so the public form their own judgements about what lies behind political decisions.

One of the most important ways that conflicts can be managed is through mutual understanding by MPs. It is essential that when developing the rules for managing conflicts of interest, that there is wide consultation with all MPs, to secure their buy-in and support. We note with some disappointment (and some irony, given that transparency is one of the principles agreed by the committee), that the draft Hluttaw Code of Ethics has not been released for consultation.

Commonly, conflicts are managed through rules on disclosure, i.e. what conflicts of interest MPs must openly publish, and when. Because conflicts of interest cannot be prevented, disclosure allows public scrutiny, so the interests of MPs can be understood.

Often, conflicts of interest are recorded in a register which is periodically updated. MPs are often also required to declare any interests at the start of a meeting. Sometimes rules may dictate that a conflict requires an MP to remove themselves from a particular meeting or vote. Under such a regime, our chicken farmer above may not be allowed to vote on an ‘Eggs Tax Bill’, for example. There is a lot of variety between different parliamentary systems, however in general there are four categories under which declarable interests fall: a) assets, b) income, c) liabilities and d) gifts (including travel).

  • Assets: typically including property, shares, directorships, trusts, partnerships and any other investments.
  • Income: and in most countries there are restrictions on certain forms of outside employment, deemed incompatible with holding elected office.
  • Liabilities: for example, a politician who is hugely indebted is perhaps more likely to try use their official position to secure additional sources of funding.
  • Gifts and travel: Restrictions on gifts and travel are included in. most ethical rules. This includes MP delegations to other countries hosted by foreign governments or foreign business interests.
  • Miscellaneous: In the UK, any other relevant interest not falling within one of the above categories, but which nevertheless falls within the definition of the main purpose of the register, must also be disclosed. As an example of what a register of interests can look like, this link shows the entry for British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, publicly available on the UK Parliament website.

In many cases, apart from rules for disclosure for individual MPs, codes of ethics also influence parliamentary procedure. In Myanmar, the Hluttaw’s practice of holding secret committee meetings is one such practice that is in contradiction with a commitment to the principle of transparency and openness, for example.

As we have seen:

‘…a set of general ethical principles might be widely accepted but cannot be used to judge MPs’ behaviour unless they can be linked to activity in certain contexts and circumstances. The principles are given force through the development of more detailed rules. But in order for the rules to be effective there must, in addition, be the threat of real, but proportionate punishment of those who break them.’

In the third and final article of this series we will take a look at the regulatory framework used for enforcement of ethical rules.

This article borrows from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) publication entitled: [‘Handbook On Parliamentary Ethics And Conduct A Guide For Parliamentarians.’]