In this column I advance the view that a democratic parliament, characterized by transparency, representativeness, accountability, effectiveness and accessibility, is best able to meet the needs of citizens which includes the advancement of integrity in public and private life.
Drawing from the work of Professor Manuel Balan and also David Beethan’s Parliaments and Democracy in the 21st Century, I propose, certainly not exhaustive, specific indicators that can be used to measure the extent to which these characteristics are actually present.
There is a common myth held by some, that the fact a parliament was voted in, is a sufficient indicator of its democratic credentials. If this were so, then democracy would only be limited to the act of voting in representatives who then can govern without regard to the wishes and desires of the people.
However, the democratic idea goes far beyond the mere act of voting. There are two fundamental premises of democracy. The first is that the members of any group or association should have the determining influence and control over its rules and policies, through their participation in deliberations about the common interest.
The second is that in doing so they should treat each other, and be treated, as equals. These principles, properly applied, explain why many believe that democratic systems are superior to other forms of governments in their ability to manage and deliver on the desires and needs of the citizenry.
Beethan asserts that a democratic parliament has five key characteristics. They should be representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective.
Representativeness has to do with being socially and politically representative of the diversity of the people and ensuring equal opportunities and protections for all its members. Transparency means the extent to which Parliament is open to its people in the conduct of its business. Accessibility of parliament concerns the involvement of the public, including the associations and interest groups in the society- the involvement of civil society in the work of parliament.
Accountability speaks to the extent to which members of parliament are being answerable to the electorate for their performance in office and equally important, their integrity of conduct. The fifth, effectiveness, refers to the level at which parliament conducts its business in accordance with these democratic values, and the performance of the legislative and oversight functions of parliament in a manner that serves the needs of the entire population.
One of the most important characteristic of a democratic parliament is undoubtedly transparency. A government, which is open, is much less likely to be corrupt especially when citizens have access to information whether of proceedings or to documents. It is vital that as far as is possible, all of government functions be open to scrutiny.
We can tell the extent to which a parliament is transparent. A transparent parliament believes in maximum exposure and provides for freedom of information within the constitution itself. Other measurements of how open and transparent a government is include proceedings open to the public; openness to press and broadcasting personnel; facilitates journalists and other media in reporting the activities of parliament; encourages freedom of expression; live parliamentary debates; parliamentary websites, which are constantly updated, etcetera.
Having explored the importance of transparency, I now consider the fact of participation and representativeness. Balan explains that:
‘The participation of the population is key in influencing and controlling government action, as people become increasingly involved in shaping the priorities of government and policymaking, in resource allocation, and in access to public goods and services.’
A flourishing democracy needs free and fair electoral systems and processes but it also needs its parliament to be representative. A representative democracy, explains Beethan, has mechanisms to ensure the rights of the political opposition and other political groups, and to allow all members to exercise their mandates freely and without being subjected to undue influence and pressure.
As useful as democracy is, even the Athenians who invented it had to deal with the issue of the other side. In any election, a significant portion of voters would not have voted for the government and a country can become ungovernable if it lacks representativeness.
A parliament’s level of representativeness can be measured by the number of women representativeness; minority representation; use of the second chamber for greater representation and inclusion and the inclusiveness of oversight committees.
It can also be measured by the extent to which chairs for specific committees are given to the opposition or minority members; the ability of backbenchers to introduce private bills; the involvement of civil society and other people’s movements in the work of parliament; pre-legislative scrutiny by the public; public right of petition, etcetera.
A third characteristic of a democratic government related to its ability to deliver and promote integrity in doing so, is accountability. Balan defines accountability as ‘The ability to ensure that public officials are both answerable, having to justify and inform the citizenry, as well as responsible for their behavior and having to eventually be sanctioned for violations.’ He explains further that:
‘Through accountability, public officials and their representatives are held to standards of conduct that are clearly in the public interest. This requires rules of conduct that are transparent, straightforward and broadly accepted in society, as well as administrative and legal processes to discipline or remove officials who do not respect such rules.’
He explains that when people know that their actions are being scrutinized, they know that they cannot get away with improper behavior. Hence, independent and thorough oversight of state actions is crucial in promoting integrity and probity in public life. This is a responsibility shared by the citizenry and government institutions, including parliament.’
The following rather lengthy quote from Balan details the importance of accountability and ways to accomplish this.
‘Parliament’s oversight role includes mechanisms such as questioning ministers about their activities and priorities, to holding ministers accountable for any failures to implement the access to information law in their ministries, to maintaining the national budget. Parliament has an opportunity to play an oversight role with the independent administrative bodies and can play a leading role with respect to appointments and funding of government bodies. Oversight involves monitoring the appointment process of officials to ensure that government is conducted in a transparent and ethical manner.’