Time to upgrade our Westminster model

By S. Callikan

Experience here and even from our parent Westminster model has revealed such shortcomings with traditional self-regulation that an independent semi-external Office has become a virtual necessity

Many of us, I guess, know one, if not more, of our own constituency MPs, current or previous over the years, whom we have come to like and respect, appreciating either their sense of proximity, their probity, their work ethos or their willingness to assist, irrespective of our roots and backgrounds or the nature of our real and sometimes imagined complaint. Many of us may also be aware, more so with the Parliament’s televised proceedings, of MPs who do their homework, are abreast and concerned by the difficulties of their own constituents or by the larger socio-economic issues facing the country.

Nobody would question that, if we want to attract quality political candidates and open public service beyond wealthy individuals with spare time, MPs and cabinet Ministers deserve at least decent emolument packages with some degree of pensionable security for ex-parliamentarians. And relative to our GDP, we cannot on balance portend that the public purse has been stingy with current and past Parliamentarians and Ministers. Yet few would claim that, as a collective breed, our Honourable MPs from across the political spectrum, have earned the degree of respect that such a noble calling, service to others, should have deserved.

There are probably many factors responsible for such a discordant state of affairs, some of which are equally observable across the globe in both parliamentary and more presidential abodes of modern democracies. They will not be dissected to any great depth as they have been lengthily analysed by such august institutions as the World Bank, the OECD, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or by special-purpose Commissions set up in various countries to recommend overdue constitutional or procedural amendments to address the governance failings of the traditional Westminster model.

Perks, privileges and lavish lifestyles

Some might recall that, in the midst of the mega-financial crisis of the 2007-08 period, a series of media articles in the Daily Telegraph (with Heather Brooke as key investigator) revealed the sometimes amusing but mostly shocking level of expense accounts, perks, privileges and lavish lifestyles of British MPs at a time when they were voting and promulgating laws and budgets wherein public services and the common man were being shorn threadbare! Such notoriously and infamously insensitive behaviour touched a raw nerve in the outraged UK public, sensing that this was not about individual MPs, or Cabinet Ministers, or the decorum and protocol of both Houses, but a more wholesale systemic abuse of public funds by a closeted and comfy breed thriving across political divides.

In a country which had voted the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, it took five years of resolute and tireless investigations to force the august «Mother of Parliaments» to amend its self-regulated exuberance with public funds and vote in 2009 the creation of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). Australia followed suit with an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (IPEA), established after a scandal broke out in 2017. Occasionally, India and Pakistan will bemoan the VVIP-culture of their ruling elites, while media and public opinion in France, with its Presidential system, will often lambast the lifestyle and privileges of its parliamentarians acting as a privileged class, the past-PM François Fillon affairs having exemplified what had long been tolerated.

Eurobarometer surveys in the EU or Transparency International’s Global Corruption indices conducted in the past five years have demonstrated a worrying pattern of cohabitation. Tolerated abuses of perks and privileges by the parliamentary class goes hand-in-hand with a corrosive erosion of public trust, a rising perception of corruption, a weakened image of integrity, a lower sense of accountability and a greater recourse to non-transparency at a variety of levels.

In other words, suspicion about abusive perks and privileges leads to or is accompanied by a generalised suspicion affecting the foundations of the very institution where integrity, transparency and accountability are supposed to be upheld in all spheres of public life.

Trust in our national institutions

So, where do we stand and what approaches have been adopted elsewhere that could be adapted to our context and specificities? It is probable that leaders of major traditional parties and many hopefuls aiming to join the fray, as well as many experienced legal and parliamentary minds, have a pretty good idea of the erosive issues at stake locally. Beyond the similar challenges faced elsewhere by MPs, Ministers and Parliamentarians generally, Mauritians have, over fifty years, witnessed the idiosyncrasies and conundrums of local politics, including the agility of political turncoats, the alliances and misalliances of the same four parties in power, the instability of a voting system that can turn constituency strong winds into gale-force outcomes in Parliament. But there is no denying popular feeling that trust in our national institution and parliamentarians can be shored up and should.

As for avenues through which this might be done, the body politic might consider action on several fronts. Such matters as the number of sittings or sessions, the appointment of a Speaker who is non-partisan or the rules governing House procedures and question sessions need dusting up toward a new consensus. Leaders of main political parties may also wish to consider the extent to which answers need to be forthcoming on entities where State funds are involved, the necessity to regiment the abuse of confidentiality clauses and even the necessity for all instruments signed by Ministers on behalf of the State to be deposited at or ratified by the National Assembly, even if specific clauses for very valid reasons are of restricted domain.

Office of Parliamentary Ethics

Sadly, none of the Parliamentary Committees supposed to provide some oversight over important areas of public governance seem functional: neither the Public Accounts Committee, nor the Parliamentary Committee on the Anti-Corruption Agency and there may be a case for greater involvement of Parliament in its regulatory activities through more credible Committee operations.

A code of ethics or conduct for Parliamentarians, as has been propounded at times, would help but only if there is an agency responsible to give its bark and bite relative credence. Such an agency might well take the form of an Office of Parliamentary Ethics (OPE) which could have a fair representation of government and opposition and be open to some nominated lay persons representing the public and the taxpayers.

With adequate funding, an independent Commissioner on five-year contract, some staffing and sufficient autonomy for credibility, the OPE may well act as first stop for all Asset Declarations from MPs rather than the current embarras of ICAC. But it may equally be made a mandatory agency for full disclosure and compilation of all details relative to overseas missions, travels, allowances and retinue composition of all State personnel including MPs, Ministers, the Speakership and even the Presidency.

Depending on political appetite for change, it could also review and standardise policy on perks and privileges, including pensions and act as review mechanism of Speaker rulings or consistent bias. It should certainly have a palette of sanctions against untoward behaviour of MPs or Ministers and could oversee all gifts received or exchanged by these officials above a threshold value and even keep a register of decorative items bought to furnish offices or suites. In the quest for greater transparency and accountability, it should submit an annual report to the National Assembly obviating the need for Parliamentary questions on several issues.

Perhaps more importantly, such an OPE might have an important education and advisory role towards parliamentarians and Ministers about potential conflict of interests relative to the Code of Conduct or to existing legislation, particularly for those Honourable Members who have or plan divestment from their ongoing liberal activities. Accountants, engineers, medical and legal professionals amongst others may well be more concerned with such questions in the future.

Parliament has a key role to discharge alongside the Executive, the Judiciary and an independent press towards greater confidence and trust in our institutions but experience here and even from our parent Westminster model has revealed such shortcomings with traditional self-regulation that an independent semi-external Office has become a virtual necessity.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2019

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