Taming Parliamentary Integrity: A Changing Foundation of Democracy

By: Jacopo Leone, Associate Democratic Governance Officer, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Warsaw

The public accountability and transparency of parliaments are keystone principles to which all OSCE participating States have subscribed. In 1990, they declared in Copenhagen that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government”. Parliaments remain today the highest representative bodies in democratic systems, and it is vitally important to promote an institutional culture of public integrity among their elected members. In this sense, parliaments should conduct their affairs with professionalism and demonstrate respect for every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender or any other fundamental characteristic, allowing for a continuous dialogue on what constitutes acting with integrity.

Despite the pivotal democratic role of parliaments, if we look at recent surveys worldwide and research analyses published by leading academics, figures suggest that parliaments are failing to build public confidence, while feeding into dissatisfaction with representative democracy as a system. These dynamics ultimately suggest that current parliamentary practice needs fundamental rethinking.

In the efforts to strengthen the democratic role of parliaments, the regulation of parliamentary behaviour and ethical standards has emerged as a necessary element to secure public trust in the efficacy, transparency and equity of democratic systems. Partly driven by the frequency with which cases of misconduct by high-level members of parliaments have become known, revealing major breaches of public trust, there has been growing interest across the OSCE region in developing and reviewing professional standards for parliamentarians.

During the 2019 OECD Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum, ODIHR delivered a dedicated session aimed at highlighting how integrity and anti-corruption standards for elected members of parliaments are constantly changing over time, with the need for parliaments to change the rules governing their behaviour as to avoid the risk of increasing the damaging gulf between public expectations and parliamentary conduct. With a high-level of interaction with the audience, the session discussed different tools to promote institutional integrity, such as the adoption of codes of conduct, to enhance democratic governance and improve accountability to the society. Using tailored case studies, the session encouraged an interactive brainstorming exercise with all participants on selected integrity dilemmas that parliamentarians might face during their functions, discussing specific country practises and general approaches.

However, identifying and codifying integrity standards for members of parliaments is no easy process. In fact, such standards are not set in stone, and expectations of parliamentarians’ behaviour vary, with social norms about what constitutes ethical behaviour – in general or in particular, for holders of public office – also changing over time. In this regard, practices that had been considered acceptable for years may come under scrutiny at a certain point in time, perhaps as a result of key events or scandals, with public debate revealing that expectations have changed. The institutional and political environment in which parliaments operate also changes as elections bring different parties to power, sometimes facilitating constitutional reform. Recent years have seen, for example, increased public discussion of issues of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and sexist language in parliaments, with a number of accusations and incidents recorded in national parliaments across the OSCE region. To this end, parliamentarians need to remain flexible and ready to change the rules governing their conduct, to keep pace and avoid the risk of increasing the damaging gulf emerging between public expectations and parliamentary behaviour.

In order to address these new challenges and the dynamic nature of parliamentary integrity, various regulatory models have emerged in parliamentary systems across the OSCE region. There is a visible preference for explicit codification, for example through the adoption of codes of conduct, of what constitutes acceptable standards of parliamentary behaviour and ethics.

A code of conduct tends to be an overarching document that sets out guidelines for the behaviour of members of parliament. Codes of conduct can be useful tools for collating all of the rules in one place, providing a benchmark against which to judge conduct and setting out general values and principles. Moreover, in all countries, the process of drafting such a code can be highly beneficial, since it tends to initiate a broad discussion about what professional and integrity standards can – and should − be expected of parliamentarians. Indeed, recurrent scandals and controversies in parliamentary democracies suggest that reform of ethics regulations, carried out in an inclusive, transparent and consultative manner, could be an important element in restoring trust in democratic systems of governance. As such, any code of conduct should ultimately be a living document that is regularly reviewed and can be updated as necessary to address new challenges.

For all of these reasons, and as highlighted by the interactive discussion during the 2019 OECD Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum, the debate about how to build institutional and individual integrity is ongoing and will always be a core aspect of political life. It is necessary to update the advice and support that is provided to professionals who choose parliamentary careers, and especially to those among them who aspire to act with integrity as political leaders, helping to shape standards, change norms and build a high-integrity political culture. To this end, ODIHR has supported more than 20 national parliaments in recent years with the drafting and adoption of integrity mechanisms. The Office is preparing to launch the second edition of its Background Study on Parliamentary Integrity, a comprehensive and practical tool analysing how to best build and reform integrity systems for members of parliament.

Further reading

OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
OECD work on Bribery and Corruption
Anti-corruption and integrity in the public sector

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