A Code of Ethics for Politicians?


At a time when the country is rocked by the allegations of corruption in the procurement of medical supplies in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic situation, and the contested attempts at refutation that are being made in Parliament, one may think that in such a charged and confusing atmosphere it is futile to even raise the issue of a code of ethics for politicians. On the contrary, it is moments of crisis like these – for this is undoubtedly a major crisis of confidence that the country is going through – that quite often act as a shock to trigger a much-needed change.

It is true that – again because of the heat of the moment – most people are more focused on the televised transmission of the sparring in Parliament than paying attention to the larger context in which the exchanges are taking place. Nevertheless, this should not detract us as citizens who feel concern for the battering that the country is receiving to cogitate over how we may get out of the quagmire – not only for the sake of the country’s image but also for our very survival as a nation, the kind of place we wish our future generations to live in.

That is why we consider this to be the appropriate time to come forward with the suggestion of a code of ethics/code of conduct for politicians, one which spells out both the shared values and principles and as well defines the prescriptive rules that must be abided by, and are enforceable so as not to end up in the ‘dustbin of history’. And thus discredit the efforts that would have gone into their elaboration.

While it is a fact that many such codes have not been met with the full compliance which they set out to establish, still there is a strong case to be made for them. And by no less than politicians themselves, given the level to which the political class – in many parts of the world in fact – has sunk, the utter disgust for politicians, the lack of trust in their electoral pledges and the questioning of their political legitimacy once elections are over and their behaviours – or misbehaviours rather – are exposed to the public domain and scrutiny.

Among the countries that have a formal code of conduct, there are: the Fiji Islands, Germany, Grenada, Israel, Japan, Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, India ‘while Chile and Poland are drafting a bill to enact a code of conduct’. This was stated in a paper titled ‘Legislative Ethics and Codes of Conduct’, by Rick Stapenhurst of World Bank Institute and Riccardo Pelizzo of Singapore Management University. Available at  https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/soss_research/37, this ‘Working Paper is brought to you for free and open access by the School of Social Sciences at Institutional Knowledge at Singapore Management University. It has been accepted for inclusion in Research Collection School of Social Sciences by an authorized administrator of Institutional Knowledge at Singapore Management University. For more information, please email library@smu.edu.sg.’

The paper, published in 2004, indicates that ‘a legislative code of conduct is a formal document which regulates the behaviour of legislators by establishing what is to be considered to be an acceptable behaviour and what is not. In other words, it is intended to promote a political culture which places considerable emphasis on the propriety, correctness, transparency, honesty of parliamentarians’ behaviour’.

A more recent paper appeared in The Conversation of April 1, 2019, ‘Many professions have codes of ethics – so why not politics?’, whose author was Sidney Bloch, Emeritus Professor in Psychiatry, University of Melbourne. Some of the highlights of this paper deserve our consideration. Thus, it alludes to ‘our politicians who have recently behaved unethically’, so that, ‘given this dismal record, unethical conduct will likely feature again in the months ahead, and in myriad forms. It’s no wonder Australians are disillusioned with the standard of politics’. Noting that ‘past attempts to ‘clean house’ have sadly failed’, ‘one would imagine the threat of an enforced, humiliating resignation; the possible end of a parliamentary career; and heartbreaking effects on the offender’s family would deter politicians from behaving improperly’, it laments that ‘yet unethical conduct continues’.

And so it poses the query – ‘it is rare today to encounter a professional body that has not established a set of ethical principles to guide their members. So why should politicians, who have the most pivotal jobs in the nation, not follow suit?’

It then sets out to suggest how politicians themselves could go about elaborating such a document – which would mean ownership and therefore make enforcement more probable. It concludes with, ‘given so many politicians have breached moral principles over the years, at times placing our fragile democracy at risk, we need to act vigorously and without delay. Australians deserve politicians of integrity who they can trust and respect unreservedly’.

Why Australians only – the citizens of all democracies are equally deserving of such politicians. We are sure that these two papers cited can serve as a good entry point for focus group discussions on such a critically needed code in our country, and that politicians who genuinely practise what they preach will not hesitate to come together and work to give the country such a code to make themselves and the country too proud.

* Published in print edition on 24 July 2020

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