Note: This article is the first of three taking a look at parliamentary ethics and conduct.
Early this year, the Hluttaw Rights Committee met to discuss the development of a Code of Ethics for parliamentarians.
The committee ‘discussed’ the need for a code of ethics for parliamentarians. This was described as being needed to secure the trust of the people, and to ensure the Hluttaw can complete its three main tasks (creating laws, scrutinising the government and representing the people), with integrity.
The committee defined six core ethical principles that should underpin a code of ethics: Integrity, Responsibility, Accountability, Transparency, Equality and Inclusion.
For each of these principles, committee members made largely agreeable and positive statements about what they might mean, and why they are important. However, whilst this discussion is a very positive first step, and all institutions should establish formal or informal codes of ethics and conduct, the definitions offered were often vague or incomplete.
During their discussion, members of the Hluttaw Rights Committee set out their definitions of each of the six principles. However, in many ways the definitions were somewhat confusing or carried an emphasis that diverges from what we find as accepted ethical principles in other parliaments. Set out below, we take a look at the definitions offered by the committee, and below each have offered alternatives based on the UK’s ‘7 Principles of Public Life’
Integrity: the committee rightly referred to not acting in order to benefit family or friends, and not taking bribes. However, no reference was made to the importance of declaring and registering interests.
“Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.”
Responsibility is a principle that seems ill-defined. The description given also referred to keeping information secret. This is particularly worrying given the Hluttaw is overwhelmingly secretive compared to other parliaments internationally (eg all committee meetings are conducted behind closed doors). The principle is therefore in contradiction with the commitment to transparency.
“Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful. Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.”
Accountability: a list of ‘ten basic principles’ for accountability were given that seems to be an odd mix of accountability, and other basic ethical principles. Establishing a system of accountability of parliamentarians should be expressed more simply as the requirement to represent their constituents, and open themselves up to public scrutiny.
“Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.”
Transparency: as an organisation passionate about open government principles, The Ananda read the committee’s attempt to define transparency with dismay. The Hluttaw is in general not very transparent. They mentioned neither the need to open up committee discussions to public scrutiny, nor the need for a presumptive right of all citizens to access public information.
“Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”
Equality: as a general principle this seemed better understood than most of the principles here, however there is perhaps an opportunity here to mention objectivity and the use of evidence in decision-making.
“Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.”
Inclusion is not well-defined by the committee. It appears to be about parliament needing to be consultative and inviting the input of NGOs and businesses, for example, in their work. However, without a stronger commitment to transparency and citizen engagement, this principle risks favouring some stakeholder groups over others, and contradicting integrity by asking parliamentarians to allow undue influence from particular groups or organisations.
There is no other principle in the UK’s principle of public life that equates to this definition of inclusion. Openness should be implemented in a way that is sufficient to ensure parliamentary processes that are consultative and engage various stakeholders.
Establishing an agreed set of clearly defined principles is only the first step. The Hluttaw must not stop there, without turning them into practical action.
In our next article we will look at the essential process of turning agreed ethical principles into detailed provisions, or rules, to identify acceptable and unacceptable conduct and behaviour.