Colombo Telegraph

What Happened To The ‘Code Of Ethics’ For Parliamentarians?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

The introduction of ‘Code of Ethics for Parliamentarians’ was an election promise given by the President at the presidential elections in January 2015. This is not yet fulfilled. It is obvious that the same ethics should apply also to the President. That is a lesson. Even if we understand the circumstances under which that promise could not be fulfilled, it should not be delayed any longer.

If a proper Code of Ethics was in place as promised, it would have been even possible to prevent what the young Hirunika Premachandra MP indulged in by ‘abducting’ a person in broad day light through her security personnel. It is claimed that she was doing so in order to ‘settle a marriage dispute,’ but obviously at her whim and without any legal authority.

The Failure

I have no intention of absolving her in any manner or minimizing what she did by breaking the law, and breaking the rule of law. But this is just an example of how a Code of Ethics could constrain, or attempt to constrain, the Members of Parliament in their misdemeanours before they become criminals. Similar ethics or more of discipline should prevail over MP’s or politician’s entourages or close cohorts. I don’t wish to use the term ‘bootleggers.’

Another example is again the young MP Chathura Senaratne’s violent behaviour at a police station threatening some persons even when they were under police custody. If his father cannot constrain him, then at least there should be a Code of Ethics to put him in good behaviour.

It is true that a Code of Ethics alone cannot correct MPs’ or Ministers’ misbehaviour. The Minsters obviously should have higher benchmarks. There should be a proper implementation mechanism and other measures and improvements. In almost all countries where there are ‘codes of ethics’ or ‘codes of conduct’ there are inside and/or outside monitoring and implementation mechanisms. In many countries, the required standards are codified as ‘Code of Conduct’ as the most of deviations are related to ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘misuse of privileges or entitlements.’ However, in the case of Sri Lanka, it is best that the standards are called ‘Code of Ethics’ as the most of the misdemeanours are related to more serous ‘ethical offenses’ such as ‘corruption, crime, alleged drug dealings, violence and nepotism.’ As I write this, the newest issue appears to be sexual harassment of women Members of Parliament by their senior most colleagues in various ways.

There are many criticisms almost daily made by the ‘Joint Opposition’ against the Government. But they are almost silent on the issue of the ‘Code of Ethics.’ If the ‘Joint Opposition’ is genuine in criticising the President or the Government for not fulfilling their promises, this is something that they should urgently ask or demand for and even they could contribute to its fulfilment! I am particularly directing this request to their main spokesperson, Dinesh Gunawardena MP, because amongst that lot, perhaps he has some credibility when it comes to at least some ethics, I believe.

The JVP is also at fault for the failure to bring a ‘Code of Ethics.’ It was a promise during the 100 days program and the JVP or its leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake was tasked with submitting a draft on the subject to the National Executive Committee. But this draft never saw the light of the day. If they had drafted one, they should have published it. The JVP is also quite silent about the subject now. For what reason, it is not known.

The Purpose  

The purpose of any Code of Ethics is to outline ethical standards expected of anybody in official capacity. There are various professions and institutions that have come up with such ethical standards. Even in the business sector, these standards are common now.

It was traditionally believed that Parliaments as the highest institutions of people’s trust would maintain high ethical standards. Thus it was further assumed or taken for granted that parliamentarians would serve the public interest rather than personal, private or family ones. This was an old notion which has eroded almost all over the world. If there were written standards in the past, those were related to the order and conduct in debates or voting in Parliament. These are usually written down in Standing Orders of Parliaments.

There is so much of discussion on Standing Orders in Sri Lanka these days by some MPs or former Ministers even confusing Articles in the Constitution and Standing Orders in Parliament. Even on the questions of ‘speech and behaviour or order and decorum’ in Parliament, our Standing Orders 72 to 77 are quite woolly. Although the emphasis is given to the authority of the Speaker rather than on principles on most of these matters, there are some Standing Orders i.e. 77 (1) which leaves the matters almost in limbo. The Standing Orders in Parliament are not revised or revisited to my knowledge since 1993.

The following is what the Standing Order 77 (1) says:

Any member who has used objectionable words in debate which are improper or unparliamentary or has stated in debate anything in contravention of Standing Order No. 78 or Standing Order No. 84 (vi) or (viii) and has not explained or retraced [sic] the same, or offered apologies for the use thereof to the satisfaction of Parliament, or who has committed any breach of order not specified in these Orders may be proceeded against in any way Parliament thinks fit, and nothing in these Orders shall prevent Parliament from proceeding against any member for breaches of order specified in these Orders in any other manner than the manner specified in these Orders.

In a Parliament such as ours where common or total standards have deteriorated and there is a confusion about what are ‘objectionable words’ or what is ‘improper’ or ‘unparliamentary,’ such a Standing Order like 77 (1) is not fully operational. The Speakers have been so lenient throughout years to their misbehaving parliamentarians or colleagues. Parliament as a whole does not take any action because almost all are the same. In April last year a group of parliamentarians spent the night in the well of the Parliament in protest, allegedly drinking and singing, but no action could be taken.

In August 2000, the behaviour of some parliamentarians were quite unparliamentary when a draft bill for a new constitution was tabled, but no action was possible. It is in this context that the same drama could be re-enacted again by a different group of parliamentarians when the proposed New Constitution is proposed or even before. Some of the key politicians seems to be considering ‘politics as a game’ apart from a ‘venture for money making.’ They may be a minority but they rule the roost most of the time, whether in the government or in the opposition.

Questionable Political Culture

This is not an ailment among the parliamentarians alone, but among the politicians inside and outside in general. One example is what transpired at Sirasa “Satana” program on 9 January (Saturday). From the beginning, the submissions by the leader of the Democratic Party, Sarath Fonseka, appeared personal whatever the truth behind his allegations against the Minister of Justice. Then the Minister, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, intervened by telephone and insulted Fonseka by calling him a ‘mentally-retarded’ person in addition to accusing him for past corrupt practices. This was not the first time the Minister had uttered such disparaging name-calling against the Field Marshall.

The general public or the citizens faces a considerable difficulty in understanding who the crooks are, because of the way the accusations are levelled against each other in disparaging manner. The seriousness of the accusations also diminishes as a result, and even formal investigations could become hampered because of the situation.

There was a similar spat recently between the Minister of Ports and Shipping, Arjuna Ranatunga and the Deputy Speaker, Thilanga Sumathipala, also the Minister of Sports, Dayasiri Jayasekara, willingly getting embroiled. All these conflicts seem to be largely personal, exacerbated by the language they use, and the emotional way the debates or arguments are conducted. In a developed democracy, these type of confrontations hardly could be seen. There is a big question about the political culture that they uphold because of the nature of confrontations that they get involved. I am here not talking about Wimal Weerawansa or Udaya Gammanpila not to waste time.

This is in a way not dissimilar to the way the public debates are often conducted even in the social media or within the civil society to a large extent. This makes it extremely difficult to figure ‘what is to be done’ or ‘where to begin.’

A Possible Breakthrough

However, there should be some breakthrough. The vicious cycle should be broken somewhere. One entry point could be a Code of Ethics. An authority on the subject, David Beetham, has stated in “Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-first Century: A Guide to Good Practice,” published in 2006:

“Where the mechanism of recall is an example of vertical accountability, a much more usual method for addressing potential misconduct on the part of parliamentarians is through a code of conduct which is enforced horizontally, by a specific commission acting on behalf of the public.” (p. 98).

I am not proposing the method of recall as it could be complicated and expensive to a country like Sri Lanka. However, a Code of Ethics is ‘sine qua non’ with a proper monitoring and implementing mechanism. Beetham’s “A Guide to Good Practice” is an Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) publication and interested parliamentarians and others can easily access the book completely free of charge, if they google under books.

There are several countries and several operational Codes of Conduct from which Sri Lanka could draw lessons or inspiration. Canada is one, and Australia is another. There are norms and standards developed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as well as the Commonwealth Association. However, the gravity of the matter in Sri Lanka is much higher and extensive, spread out also to the Provincial Councils and Local Government institutions. I have already proposed an overall ‘Code of Ethics’ as a Schedule in the New Constitution. This should be pursued and some of the elements could be as follows. This is only a short draft as an example.

The Members of Parliament and Ministers,

  1. Should faithfully uphold the Constitution, laws and regulations.
  1. Should give utmost priority to public interest and refrain from all forms of nepotism, corruption and misdeeds.
  1. Should declare all assets and liabilities of oneself and family every year and refrain from engaging in any financial dealings directly or indirectly against the laws and regulations.
  1. Should be accountable to their constituents and have a duty to educate citizens on democracy, their rights and how they could participate in policy making processes.
  1. Should treat all constituents equally without any distinction as to ethnicity, religion, language, social status or class, gender, age, disability, political party or opinion or any other distinction. Nevertheless, special consideration should be accorded to the poor and the marginalized as affirmative action.
  1. Should respect all human rights of all citizens.
  1. Male members should particularly respect women Members of Parliament equally and respectfully.
  1. Should refrain from and denounce all forms of violence, threats and intimidation in Parliament, outside, in the constituency and in politics in general. Should discipline their staff, security and close supporters and be responsible for their actions accordingly.
  1. Refrain and denounce communalism, hate speech, instigation of any form of ethnic, religious or any other conflict directly or indirectly.
  1. Should attend Parliament regularly in full sessions and participate constructively in its deliberations.
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