Editorial | Adhering to code of conduct critical for Parliamentarians
Fresh from electoral victories in 2020, first-time parliamentarians were exposed to a five-week virtual seminar in the rudiments of parliamentary procedures aimed at preparing them to effectively carry out their duties.
Post-election seminars arranged by the Houses of Parliament and executed by the Management Institute for National Development (MIND) are intended to be staged within three months of new members receiving their Instruments of Appointment.
Parliamentary sessions, as we have observed, can be quite rambunctious, sometimes descending into chaos, with members slinging insults and generally disrespecting each other.
So the idea of hosting a seminar on parliamentary procedures sounded like a full-throated commitment to address some of the ugliness that we have seen emanating from Gordon House. The disorderly conduct and complete lack of decorum, at times, contributed to the erosion of the dignity of Parliament.
Admirably, the Integrity Commission was asked to conduct a series of anti-corruption, good governance and integrity workshops for the prime minister and his Cabinet. One could begin to form the idea that there was some seriousness about tackling some of the governance issues that have dogged this nation for years.
ABUSE OF POWER
Indeed, it looked like we were heading in the right direction where meaningful reform could be built on those commitments, especially with already broad public support for anti-corruption agencies and independent parliamentary ethics committees, which are designed to put the brakes on abuse of power.
Then April 14, 2021, happened. On that day, there appeared on social media platforms a video of a man raining blows on a female who he also assaulted mercilessly with a stool. The police named George Wright as a person of interest only to declare their investigation done and dusted after a meeting with the MP and the woman believed to be on the receiving end of the blows. Both had earlier filed complaints with the police.
While Mr Wright has not confirmed that he is the man in the video, he has taken leave from Parliament due to “unforeseen circumstances”, and there is confusion as to whether he remains a member of the Government or whether he is an Independent.
Irked over the police’s handling of the matter, citizens, including some women’s groups, have been pressing the matter. Would the police have closed their investigations so quickly had it been an ordinary citizen? Members of the public do not like to feel that politicians are immune to punishment if they break the law. There are appropriate structures and mechanisms to resolve conflict, and they are available to everyone.
REVIEW GOVERNMENT ARRANGEMENTS
As we have pointed out in our earlier comment on this sad episode, here is a real opportunity for Parliament to undertake a serious review of governance arrangements, including establishing clear parameters for the matters for which it will hold members to account. The Westminster model of parliamentary procedure, which we follow, takes it for granted that political power will be exercised by people who know how to behave in Parliament and in the wider society, and trust is invested in them.
Having regard to the public debate sparked by this issue, we see a clear need for the ongoing training of parliamentarians to ensure that they act responsibly and show respect for law and order at all times. We firmly believe that establishing a code of conduct with provision for sanctions is one way for Parliament to try and can win back the public’s respect and trust.
We also feel that there needs to be a rigorous revision of the current handbook for parliamentarians with specific provisions regarding acceptable behaviour within the House and in the public sphere. Parliament runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if it is seen as condoning poor and illegal behaviour. In the face of mounting public pressure, Government must find a remedy.