PURELY POLITICAL: Behaviour code now!
By Albert Brandford | Sun, December 02, 2012 - 12:00 AM
Over my 20 years in Parliament, I have winced at the often caustic climate in the Chamber, in the form of time-wasting, name-calling, frivolous points of order, muckraking, ad hominem arguments, and the list goes on. – Assistant Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, H.V. Ross Robertson, The Parliamentarian, 2007.
There is absolutely no excuse, suggestions of provocation notwithstanding, for the type of behaviour we witnessed from our Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Assembly recently.
Even schoolchildren, with their seemingly increasing proclivity for mischief when the teacher’s back is turned, know that the classroom is not the place for retaliation in any form, and have the sense of occasion and awareness of swift and certain sanction to take their bad behaviour outside away from the presence of authority.
It has come to be accepted that in the heat of the cut and thrust of debate in Parliament, some MPs may imprudently resort to the employ of behaviours that clearly do not meet the required standards set and enforced by the traditional customs and rules of the House.
But they are aware of, and some have felt, the swift and immediate sanction of the presiding officers when their vile rhetorical emesis stains the floor of that august chamber and their own once proudly protected reputations before a national radio and television audience, a significant portion of which is made up of waiting voters.
It is unfortunate and regrettable that we do not yet have the long promised Code of Conduct for MPs with sanctions severe enough to deter even the sloppiest of thinkers and those who may think that their high positions in society outside of the House could protect them from unacceptable rhetorical excesses and simply disgusting gutter language.
In the 30 plus years I have been involved in covering and commenting on Parliament, I have had the misfortune of witnessing examples of gratuitous, over-the-top invective from MPs while on their feet and the occasional calumny wrapped in cowardly asides ostensibly not meant for the ears of the presiding officers, but which would assail the hearing of the taxi-men in Heroes Square and even make the denizens of nearby Nelson Street blush.
But I, and others with longer memories, have also had the distinct pleasure of seeing presiding officers employ the rules of the House to ensure that not only the offending members, but all Barbadians, know and understand that such behaviour would not be condoned and would be met with swift and condign punishment.
Some readers may suggest that it may be a little late in the game for such actions as the country and the political parties prepare for an imminent general election, and that in any case, one of the individuals involved in the incident has long given notice of his intentions to exit elective politics at the end of this five-year term.
Still, others, and I include myself among them, would counter that it can never be too late to set a formal bar for behaviour in the House and ensure that the provisions within the code are firmly and fairly enforced – elections or no elections.
In this space previously, I referred to Assistant Speaker Robertson’s suggestion of the need for a clear outline of basic values and acceptable standards of behaviour that would assist MPs to understand their obligations, to deal fairly and show respect for one another, and to provide public standards against which an individual’s conduct may be measured.
Readers may also recall a reference to a decision of the House of Commons in Britain in February last year to approve a Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament, the purpose of which, it said, was to assist members in the discharge of their obligations to the House, their constituents and the public at large by providing guidance on the standards of conduct expected of members in discharging their parliamentary and public duties.
“The code applies to all members in all aspects of their pubic life,” the guide said, “but does not seek to regulate what members do in their purely private and personal lives.
“The obligations set out in this code are complementary to those which apply to all members by virtue of the procedural and other rules of the House and the rulings of the Chair, and to those which apply to members falling within the scope of the Ministerial Code.”
The Rules of Conduct stipulate: “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons or its members generally into disrepute.”
The code included a section placing major emphasis on conduct in the House, primarily concerned with matters of behaviour and appearance.
As Robertson noted: “The behaviour of members in the Chamber could certainly be improved. Some of these matters may appear to be minor, but they are important nevertheless to public perceptions. The Chamber is a very public place and the focal point of public perception of Parliament. It will surely help if we can achieve improvements in this area.”
Some excerpts from the code:
1) Members are to observe any standards of conduct which the House may prescribe. They are to behave at all times in such manner as will enhance the dignity and decorum of the House.
2) Members should avoid making allegations in the House that are not supported by evidence.
3) Members should not conduct conversations in the Chamber whilst other members are speaking unless it is necessary to do so, and then only so as not to disturb the proceedings; and
4) Members should not conduct conversations in the lobbies in such a manner as to be heard in the Chamber; [or] shout slogans, engage in ad hominem abuse, interrupt a member speaking, or otherwise act in a disorderly manner in the Chamber, lobbies, the galleries or adjoining rooms and corridors.
These matters are so important to the good conduct of the people’s business and governance of the country that they bear repeating.
It is still my belief that while some may doubt the efficacy of such codes to help improve MPs’ conduct, we ought to give them a try even if we have to shame parliamentarians into behaving properly.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.
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