At the time this article was written John Williams was the
Member of Parliament for St. Albert, Alberta. He was also the Chair of
the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts, and the Interim
Chair of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption.
The inaugural meeting of a
Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) will be held
in Ottawa from October 13 to 16, 2002. It is being hosted by the Parliament of
Canada with Speaker Dan Hays of the Senate and Speaker Peter Milliken of the
House of Commons acting as co-hosts. Between 100 to 200 parliamentarians from
around the world are expected to attend this conference. This article outlines
the background leading to this event.
The institution of Parliament
has a special role in a well-functioning democracy. Many confuse
Parliament with government, but they are distinct and independent institutions.
Government has a mandate to run the country, however we know far too well
that unless it is held accountable, leaders with too much power tend to use it
for their own ends and their own objectives.
At the worst end of the
spectrum, we have a Parliament in Zimbabwe which was elected by the people a
year ago, but it is more than obvious from the media that President Mugabe can
do what he wants, when he wants, wherever he wants, including throwing the
farmers off their land and letting the population whom he should be serving
starve in the street.
There is something
dramatically wrong in Zimbabwe and the simple answer is that Mr. Mugabe is not
held accountable for his actions and his decisions. And who has that
responsibility to hold Mr. Mugabe and his government accountable? It is
of course, the parliament and the elected members who have that responsibility
and the Members of Parliament in turn should be held accountable for their
performance by ensuring that there is an educated and informed public who can
make a rational choice at election time based on competent candidates,
political parties with integrity and an electoral system that is fair and open.
Parliament has four separate
and distinct responsibilities regarding its accountability over government:
- It approves legislative requests from
government – when government wants to introduce or amend a program to
serve society it must request approval from parliament. Hence, Parliament
debates the design and merits of such programs and policies of the
government and may grant approval with or without amendment;
- The government has to seek authority from
Parliament (ways and means) for its policies on taxation in order to raise
the funds necessary for government. Any changes to the taxation
rules must be brought to Parliament for its concurrence;
- The government must seek approval from
Parliament for spending authority (the Estimates process) before it can expend
funds on behalf of its citizens; and
- government is required to report to
Parliament and table in the House a myriad of reports on its performance.
When parliament fails to
exercise its oversight on government, the accountability of government is weakened
and it gets lax and inefficient. Unless that oversight is improved,
governments will degenerate into dictatorships and in some cases, be accused of
participating in murder (e.g. Peru, Ukraine, etc., all of which profess to have
With this weakness prevalent
but not fully recognized, the idea of forming a membership-based organization
of parliamentarians started to grow. There are parliamentarians in some
parts of the world who have put their lives on the line while standing up and
speaking out against their own government. Such a concept is so far
removed from the Canadian experience that we find it difficult to believe that
a parliamentarian’s life can be threatened by speaking out, but it has been an
unfortunate reality elsewhere.
The GOPAC Conference
Parliamentarians, knowing that
accountability promotes transparency and good governance, are now coming
together to found an organization to combat and speak out against corrupt
activities. The organization, to be known as the Global Organization of
Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) should come into being at a
conference in Ottawa from October 13 to 16, 2002. This will be an
umbrella organization to motivate, support, and organize regional chapters
around the world such as North American Parliamentarians Against Corruption
(NAPAC), Latin American Parliamentarians Against Corruption (LAPAC) Southeast
Asian Parliamentarians Against Corruption (SEAPAC), and the African
Parliamentarians Network Against Corruption (APNAC), etc. We have also
been recently advised that a chapter has been formed in the Russian Federation.
Unlike most conferences, which are a single event, this
conference will create an organization that will have the capacity to develop
momentum and continuity.
The organization is aligned
along regional lines to facilitate the development of an organization that can
be effective. Regional organizations are more likely to have a common
language, and corruption often manifests itself on a cultural basis, which is more
easily understood within a region. Parliamentarians who are able to
provide peer support to their neighbours being dominated by its executive will
be more inclined to be heard and of course, the objective of GOPAC is to
enhance the effectiveness of Parliaments and parliamentarians, not on worldwide
travel to global conferences.
The organization will not be a
vehicle for the developed world to provide its answers to the developing world
but will be a recognition that corruption grows whenever accountability is
weak. Clearly, we are not immune to corruption in our part of the world.
We need only look at the celebrated cases of Enron and WorldCom that have
cost investors billions of dollars and has caused the government (especially in
the United States) to sit up, take notice and request approval for tougher
legislation from Congress in order to prosecute offenders who think that
publicly traded companies are their own little fiefdoms.
In addition to these types of
cases, it is often pointed out that the proceeds of drug trafficking and
corruption on a grand scale by dictators ends up in the banks and financial
institutions of the developed world to fuel the economies of the prosperous
without so much as a murmur of dissent from us. In the meantime, the economies
of the countries where corruption is rife or out of control are left in ruins
and the population destitute or on their way to becoming so.
It is fundamental to democracy
that parliamentarians pick up the challenge to fight corruption.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups often
complain about corruption and call upon Parliament to legislate controls.
We must, however, recognize that Parliament and parliamentarians have the
responsibility for enacting legislation. Credit must be given to our
development agency, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), as
well as the World Bank Institute who have recognized the importance of GOPAC
and its chapters and have been generous in their assistance. Other development
agencies and international financial institutions are starting to recognize the
role of parliamentarians in fighting corruption and are willing to look at
funding an organization to motivate parliamentarians to exercise more
accountability over government.
There is a wealth of research
already available through Transparency International (TI), the OECD, the
Council of Europe, and international financial institutions, who have studied
and analyzed the levels of corruption around the world. That research
needs a voice in order to implement recommendations. Who is it that has
the mandate to do that? It is the parliamentarians. Here in Canada
there have been calls for codes of conduct for parliamentarians and Cabinet
Ministers. Much work has already been done on codes of conducts for
parliamentarians around the world. Let us bring the best of that thinking
to the forefront in order that every Parliament can speak with integrity by
saying it has a code of conduct that is strong enough and clear enough to be effective
in ensuring that parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers work on behalf of
society rather than filling their pockets from society.
When it comes to corruption,
GOPAC must be above reproach and demonstrate that it is competent, capable and
organized. For this reason, GOPAC and its chapters will each be aligned
with an NGO dedicated to improving governance. This will provide access
to a professional secretariat, but more importantly that money will be handled
by professionals and not by politicians. For the conference a non
governmental organization, the Parliamentary Centre, an NGO located in Ottawa
with many years of experience in good governance issues, will act as the global
Parliamentarians today carry
on their shoulders the mantle of protecting democracy that they have inherited
from their predecessors. In order for them to fulfill that
responsibility, parliamentarians should know and understand the roles of
various institutions that support a democratic environment. It is not enough
anymore to say “I support the government,” or “I oppose the government”,
Parliament as an institution is there to supervise government.
The concept of GOPAC has
caught the imagination of individual parliamentarians who are committed to
standing up around the world to improve the integrity of their organization and
thereby enhance the prosperity of their society. For us in Canada, these
stark realities are seldom at the forefront but they are truly life and death
to some. We as parliamentarians in this bountiful land owe our support to
our colleagues around the world who only seek for their society what has been
available in this country since its inception.