A code for Pakistani parliamentarians

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By I.A. Rehman

POLITICS in Pakistan is being reduced to the exchange of invective between rival groups. Those shouting the loudest and hurling the harshest expletives at fellow politicians are considered the most effective defenders of their party’s’ interests. There is a broad consensus that this disorder needs to be checked.

Sometime ago, angry and improper speeches in the National Assembly caused such a rumpus that the demand for a code of ethics for parliamentarians was supported by nearly all the MNAs present. Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, who speaks much less frequently than his loquacious colleagues in the cabinet, was asked to get the required code drafted. Nothing more about the initiative has been heard and it is time the matter was earnestly taken up.

To older citizens, especially those with long memories, the call for a code of ethics for parliamentarians might sound strange and unnecessary. They had heard or read about debates in pre-Independence assemblies, particularly at the central level, in which a member on the opposite side was addressed with respect as “my learned friend” and if the element of courtesy had to be reduced, the word ‘learned’ was dropped.

In the Central Assembly of India, the representatives of the Raj were endlessly attacked by nationalist members but neither side used pejorative expressions about the others. Policies were attacked and government actions were denounced but fellow parliamentarians’ personal status was not targeted. Recognition of one another’s inherent dignity did not dilute the force of disagreement or censure the speaker wished to convey.
The maiden speech by a new member used to be a special occasion for which he made extraordinary preparations. The theme of the speech had to be carefully selected and the arguments developed in such a manner as to indicate the speaker’s choice of the subject for specialisation as well as his skill in presenting his case.

ISLAMABAD: Dec27- Workers of Pakistan People’s Party lights the candles in remembrance of former prime minister (late) Benazir Bhutto during on her 11th death anniversary outside National Press Club.

Some of these traditions did survive after Independence, though the lack of a refined culture of debate and the desire to outdo others in displaying patriotic fervour and the special privileges claimed by the leaders of the movement for Pakistan to shout down their adversaries of past years could lead to deviations. A political rival was even called a dog. Yet, one could hear someone referring to Hansard or May’s parliamentary procedures. Unparliamentary words would cause an uproar and in most cases were withdrawn and expunged from the record. Quite a few parliamentarians became known for elaborately preparing their speeches.

Unfortunately, the tradition of paying special attention to debut speeches expired because in the absence of regular elections, the appearance of fresh faces in assemblies became rare. When after the 1960s, new members did start coming into assemblies, their first perorations were usually devoted to the party leader’s praise or denunciation of opponents. Anyone interested in learning about the standard of parliamentary practices and ethics of debate in pre-1958 Pakistan will find valuable hints in parliament’s old records.

As a matter of fact, ethical parliamentary practices are an extension of culturally sound behaviour and attitude. In addition to extending normal courtesies to one another, parliamentarians are expected to be relevant, truthful and inspired by considerations of public good. These values can be acquired by responsible representatives of the people without going through a special text.

However, since the need to elevate parliamentary proceedings to a level that public respect for the system of rule by the people’s elected representatives is increased has been felt in many countries, efforts have been made to lay down model codes of ethics for parliamentarians.

In our case, the subject was discussed in some detail at the seminar on Parliamentary Practice and Procedures organised by the Senate of Pakistan, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, at the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services in May 2015, especially for the benefit of newly elected senators. The CPA delegation circulated a ‘Handbook on Parliamentary Ethics and Conduct: A Guide for Parliamentarians, published jointly by the Global Task Force on Parliamentary Ethics and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. This slim publication offers extremely useful instructions on building an ethical culture of consultation and discussion and developing a regime of ethical conduct.

For those who like shorter manuals, the CPA offered its own Recommended Benchmarks for Codes of Conduct applying to Members of Parliament. According to this pamphlet, a parliamentary code of conduct is needed to “encourage ethical conduct, reduce risks to the integrity of the parliament as the paramount political institution, enable it to perform its functions more effectively, enhance propriety and strengthen the community’s trust in parliament”.

Since a parliamentarian is required to use his office as a public trust, the pamphlet lays down the following principles he must follow: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, truthfulness, and leadership. Further, members of parliament are advised to act in good conscience, respect the inherent dignity of all, secure the trust and respect of the community, uphold the ideals of democratic governance, separation of powers and rule of law, abide by the constitution, and hold themselves accountable. After laying down benchmarks for codes of conduct, the pamphlet suggests the appointment of an ethics adviser to ensure enforcement of the codes and describes the steps required for fostering a culture of ethical conduct.

All this is perhaps known to most of our parliamentarians. They may also be too proud to borrow ideas from a ‘decadent’ West. Yet anyone working conscientiously on a code of conduct for Pakistan’s parliamentarians will find the CPA guidelines greatly useful.

In order to raise the level of discussion in elected assemblies, however, it will also be necessary to improve the quality of public discourse outside. The tendency to ceaselessly demonise one’s opponents, that is seen at forums outside assemblies, often slips over into the chambers of elected representatives. This only underlines the urgency of promoting a democratic political culture.

(The author is veteran human rights leader. Article courtesy Dawn)