Politicos! respect must be earned, not demanded
Empirical evidence suggests that the British people are fast losing faith in parliament and other public institutions that are the cornerstones of democracy. This has led to a serious dip in public respect.

The other day Geoff Hoon, Leader of the Commons, lamented in a newspaper article that "Parliament is facing a crisis of respect."
"There is a popular myth," he wrote, "that MPs should be regarded as a bunch of second-raters who are in it for what they can get. This is grossly unfair, but it is worrying that people think it."

A myth? No, on both counts. May be — and I say may be — that most British MPs might not be sitting in parliament "for what they can get."
Sadly the present government has contributed much to this decline.
Fortunately for Britain, however, conduct in the Commons has not descended to the level of behaviour so amply displayed by some of those in the house by the Diyawanna Oya.

The raucous, unruly behaviour of Tamil National Alliance politicos in parliament this month and other MPs in recent years only serves to lower whatever reputation parliament has in the public mind.
The impression left in the minds of school children and others who witness such disgusting conduct could hardly enhance the reputation of parliament or its MPs.

While it would be unfair to paint all MPs with the same brush, there is a growing public perception that many enter politics not to serve the country but themselves and their kinsmen, for "what they can get."
How apt is that old Sinhala saying: When you have the spoon serve yourself.

MPS are due to get duty free vehicles once more, while the public are slapped with ever-rising prices. Among other accoutrement considered intrinsic to their role as parliamentarians are laptop computers. Whether these are for their personal use in the performance of their parliamentary duties or whether anybody including their ayah ammas is permitted to push a few keys here and there, remains unexplained. Over the years our MPs have been accumulating a sizeable package of goodies from fat salaries and numerous allowances to pensions, mobile telephones, subsidised food, fuel and the lot.

Ministers and their deputies, of course, collect more than mere MPs of which not many remain on the government side anyway.
What is the cost to the state of the several thousand police and service personnel that provide security to all these wonderful politicians and the government vehicles allocated for it?

While the public might ask why so many men and material should be diverted for security when the ministers and MPs have been popularly chosen by the people, those better acquainted with the workings of our political system would only smile at such naivete.

At elections politicians run for office. Once elected they run for cover, leaving behind a trail of broken promises. So the security is to protect the politicians from the people, often the very people who voted them into parliament.

The popularity of a minister, deputy or MP could perhaps be gauged by the number of bodyguards that guard each body.
But it is not merely broken promises that cause this loss of faith with politicians. The reasons are too well known to be spelt out in capital letters. The shenanigans of Sri Lankan ministers and parliamentarians need no reiteration. I read in a Sri Lanka newspaper recently that some MPs had still not declared their assets as required by law.

Public confidence in our politicians has plummeted so much that even when politicians appear to be clean, there are lurking suspicions that lily-white tops and cloths or trousers do not make a Mister Clean.

By the early 1990s, the word "sleaze" appeared in political debate in the UK (in Sri Lanka we already knew of it). The day Neil Hamilton, Minister for Corporate Affairs, resigned for having accepted a free stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris from its owner Mohammed Al-Fayed, Prime Minister John Major appointed Lord Nolan, a Law Lord, to inquire into standards in British public life. The inquiry was to cover the standards of conduct of all holders of public office including ministers, civil servants and advisers, MPs and UK MPs of the European parliament.

As Lord Nolan heard evidence, it became clear there was increasing public cynicism in the conduct of MPs and parliament. "As long as the people of this country have confidence in the House of Commons then I believe that nothing much can go wrong. Without that confidence nothing much can go right," Lord Nolan said in March 1995. Among Nolan's recommendations was the establishment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standard and a Code of Conduct for MPs drawn up by a new select committee.

In countries where respect for its political leaders and institutions is still valued though there has been a perceptible drop in standards, attempts will be made to restore such respect through public inquiry or by reformation from within.

Could the Sri Lanka public ever expect its leaders to order such public inquiries and try to cleanse public life when to do so might undermine their own hold on political power?

People know only too well that moral turpitude, bribery, corruption and the abuse and misuse of power have become endemic in our society. Corruption goes below the level of politics to officialdom and the bureaucracy.

When ministers travel in first or business class comfort, stay in some of the best hotels in the foreign capitals they visit and spend public money as though they came of the world's richest countries, no questions are asked, no answers are volunteered.

The British minister Hamilton resigned because he had enjoyed the hospitality of the Ritz Hotel owner. How much hospitality do our leaders enjoy and how many of the gifts they receive should really be public property. Will they ever resign even when such unsavoury and unacceptable conduct is exposed in the media or elsewhere? If there has been one public figure in Sri Lanka who has done so, we would like to know. He or she deserves a shrine.

If Sri Lanka is ever going to cleanse its public life, then those holding office must be made accountable and those guilty of bribery and general malfeasance removed.

Parliament must have a system whereby every minister, deputy minister or politician who goes abroad on official business makes a declaration to parliament on where he had been, what he did, where he stayed with a break down of his travel and other expenses while on official business.

This should appear in Hansard or elsewhere for public information. The same should apply to bureaucrats on official business who should declare to an independent Ombudsman with the necessary powers to investigate any violations of ethics and standards of conduct and the right to demand all necessary information about their wealth.

Why are so many stories circulating about the misuse of tsunami funds? Because increasing ethical lassitude has made society sceptical of those in public life — whether it be in politics or in sport.

Every commission made on every contract will fatten somebody's bank balance in Switzerland or Australia. But it will also increases public distrust and anger.

Tough measures are needed to return a modicum of respectability to public life. But who will bell the cat?

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.