Prominence Should Be To Ethics And Morality

  • Corrupt and immoral political ethic requires drastic change

By Saliya Pieris

The famous American Senator Daniel Webster, though a courageous politician, was notorious for accepting gifts and favours from different people, so much so that even on his death bed it is said that an old gentleman turned up to offer the household a large roll of dollar bills. In his book Profiles in Courage, John F Kennedy observed that it never occured to Webster that obtaining gifts and favours was unethical or wrong but that he thought that it was his due, for services rendered.

Many of our modern day Sri Lankan politicians are not different from Webster, except that the magnitude of gifts and favours have just got bigger.

Many modern day politicians, like Webster see nothing wrong in accepting gifts and favours be it cash, kind or other rewards. The culture of bribery and commissions has expanded even to politicians at the lowest rung such as members of local authorities. In one matter where a local authority Chairman was arrested, he had obtained commission from rival parties to rent out the same hoarding and gone on to give the award to the ‘highest bidder’, the person who gave him the larger bribe. Unfortunately  for him the other party complained.

Many acts and omissions of politicians which are unethical or plainly wrong, are not seen to be so by them and by their coterie. A culture of impunity and tolerance has been built, accepting and tolerating these nefarious activities of politicians. Not only the Common Man but even educated people have stopped questioning bribery, corruption and substandard conduct, justifying them saying that is how politicians are and that the opposition too indulges in the same.

If we are to establish clean government in Sri Lanka it is imperative that this corrupt and immoral political ethic undergo a drastic change. For this end a starting point could be to make politicians be they Ministers, Members of Parliament, Provincial Councillors or local authority members, subject to a Code of Ethics together with a regulatory and enforcement framework – just as in other professions.

At present none of those at the helm of the three main organs of the State – the legislature, executive or judiciary have a formal code of ethics governing their standards of conduct. Unlike other professionals, in Sri Lanka politicians and judges do not have any formal code of ethics and standards, by which their conduct can be judged. It is time that this is changed.

A code of ethical standards as well as a mechanism for implementation of these standards is vital if for not only the well being of these institutions, but also to restore public confidence in these institutions, so essential to the Rule of Law and democracy.

Many countries have adopted formal Codes of Conduct for members of the legislature together with a framework for monitoring their violations and also providing for the imposition of sanctions for those who violate them.

An effective code of conduct will set standards for parliamentarians consonant with the important role they play in both the executive and legislative arms of the government. It will also make parliamentarians more accountable to the public for their conduct.

In 1994 the Committee on Standards in Public Life, established by the Parliament of the United Kingdom adopted a seven point principles of public life, which is the measure of standards of members of the legislature. These principles which are set out below could well be the basis for discussion for the formulation of a Code for Politicians (as well as others in public life such as judges).

These are:

1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

2. Integrity: Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.

3. Objectivity: In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

5. Openness: Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

6. Honesty: Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

7. Leadership: Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Based on these principles a Code of Conduct and Ethics for politicians should be formulated setting out what ought to be the way of life for our politicians.

Any such Code should contain a provision requiring politicians to declare their interests, whether financial or otherwise which would be in conflict with their public life. In the United Kingdom such declarations are made available for examination by the public. Similarly declarations of assets and liabilities of politicians should be readily available in the public domain.

Another aspect of laying down ethical standards of conduct is the need to introduce a regulatory and monitoring framework. A code of ethics should contain provisions for public complaints, inquiries and sanctions for those found guilty of unethical conduct. In the United Kingdom there is an Independent Parliamentary Official, to monitor compliance with ethical standards. Complaints of unethical conduct are inquired into and in certain cases even successful criminal prosecutions launched against Members of Parliament such as those relating to the expenses scandal where a few years ago Parliamentarians were found to have submitted false claims for parliamentary expenditure.

In the United States  the Senate and House of Representatives have their own Ethics Committees which are empowered to impose censures and sanctions on those violating these codes. In extreme cases members have been forced to resign from office or not to seek re-election over allegations of misconduct.

sri lanka. 2Accompanying standards of parliamentary conduct, should be laws pertaining to the regulation  of campaign finance.

Presently Sri Lanka has no procedure whatsoever requiring politicians to disclose their campaign finances. Similarly there is no strict separation between personal finances and campaign finances. Neither are any restrictions placed on campaign finance.

There must be a public disclosure on who contributes to campaign finances – in order to ensure that such financing is not being made in return for favours granted after elections and to prevent various elements from bribing politicians under the guise of campaign finance. Dislclosing campaign contributions will compell politicsl parties and politicians not to accept donations from people whose conduct does not conform to public standards and to accept donations only from persons or institutions whose wealth is not suspect to be ill gotten. Placing a limit on campaign expenditure and compelling disclosure will create a more level playing field among the different candidates and political parties.

Some years ago the Ethics Committee of the Indian Rajya Sabha observed  “Ethics and morality has been the hallmark of public life since ancient times. Rulers were expected to observe stricter ethical values and an unethical king was shown no mercy…”  This is perhaps what the public in Sri Lanka should demand of all those persons in public life, who exercise their powers in trust for the people of Sri Lanka.

(The writer is a senior lawyer and a board member of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute)