Posted in Legislative Analysis, Political Institutions on Nov 18, 2019

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

In the two previous articles we talked about the need for clear principles to underpin any code of parliamentary ethics, and then about the rules needed to ensure those principles are upheld. Most importantly, we looked in more detail at the rules surrounding managing conflicts of interest.

In this final article of the series we take a look at how ethical rules should be enforced. Once again, we borrow heavily from the useful Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) publication entitled: ‘Handbook On Parliamentary Ethics And Conduct A Guide For Parliamentarians.’

In general, there is little point in developing an ethical code of conduct for parliamentarians if there aren’t consequences for individuals who break the rules. This tends to require parliaments to establish some form of regulatory body that can review possible cases of impropriety and decide upon appropriate sanctions.

Regulatory bodies for parliamentary ethics tend either to be independent and external to parliament, or they are established within the legislation as a parliamentary committee (or similar). Some hybrids with elements of both internal review and external oversight are also possible.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. For example, whilst an external body may be seen as more objective and less vulnerable to the influence of MPs, such a form of regulation may not be widely supported by parliamentarians. Likewise, a body internal to the legislature may secure more buy-in from MPs, but may not be seen as sufficiently impartial to judge cases fairly.

With a young parliament like Myanmar’s Hluttaw, the right choice of regulatory mechanism for ethical conduct is likely to depend to a great extent on the capacity of the institutions available. For each of the three possible regulatory arrangements for parliamentary ethics, we set out below some pertinent questions:

  • Internal regulation, eg a ‘Parliamentary Ethics Committee’

    • Do MPs have sufficient technical knowledge of ethics and codes of conduct to perform this function effectively?
    • Are MPs sufficiently free and impartial, eg from political party influence, to make fair and impartial judgements on parliamentary conduct?
  • External regulation, eg through the courts or a newly created body

    • Can the judiciary perform this function? Or should an entirely new body be created (perhaps akin to the Anti-Corruption Commission)?
    • Would MPs back the creation of an external body?
  • Hybrid regulation, eg external commissioner + parliamentary committee

    • Could an external commissioner, independent of the Hluttaw, be appointed to manage investigations into parliamentary conduct, and report to a Hluttaw committee which would decide upon sanctions?

However parliamentary ethics are regulated and enforced, regulatory bodies tend to enforce basic rules of proper conduct (from not carrying weapons, to being respectful and using appropriate language), as well as the ethical rules concerning conflicts of interest discussed in our previous two articles.

Potential breaches of the rules may be referred to the Speaker in the first instance, or directly to the regulatory body, whether external or an internal parliamentary committee. Investigations may follow and sanctions may vary form a period of suspension from parliament, to permanent exclusion, fines or even criminal proceedings.

Discussing the establishment of a sanction regime for potential breaches of the code of conduct may be an uncomfortable conversation for MPs. Many may feel they have done nothing wrong and there is no need for such a regime. It may feel like their motivations and moral conduct is being unfairly called into question.

However, it is important to remember that these systems are designed to protect MPs, and above all to protect the legitimacy of the legislature.