Select Committee on International Development Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr John Williams MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Ottawa, Canada


  1.  Over the centuries, parliaments have evolved and developed in response to the demands by the citizens of a nation, that their government be held accountable to someone. Even in a peaceful society (ie A nation not at war) governments without accountability have been a curse on their own societies. Over time, citizens have demanded and won the right, to

    (a)  Approve legislation proposed by their government;

    (b  Reject taxation without representation, and

    (c)  Approve, limit or even reduce spending proposals by their government.

  2.  Since the battle for accountability was won, the question now is, "Can it be maintained and enhanced? Is the institution of Parliament being co-opted and weakened by governments? Are Parliamentarians succumbing to the temptations of power which is so close at hand?"

  3.  Unfortunately, the answer is "yes" because in many instances, parliamentarians see themselves as either part of government, or on their way to becoming government. However, there is a clear distinction between the responsibility of government, which is to decide upon and implement public policy, and the responsibility of a parliament which is to speak on behalf of the citizens of the nation, approve public policy, and act as the watchdog on government.

  4.  The institution of parliament developed as the representative voice of the people, whose fundamental role, is to hold the government accountable and answerable for its actions. The tyranny of a government without accountability knows no bounds. It is the role of parliament to provide the accountability that is required.

  5.  Accountability in the private sector is a relatively simple thing. It is called competition and regulation. When many businesses strive to serve the same client, healthy competition prevails. If a business cannot prosper in a competitive environment, it will die and disappear. But the opportunity for profit will always ensure that vigorous, fresh, enthusiastic, new businesses are willing to enter the marketplace. When healthy competition prevails, a business prospers by providing better service, lower prices and better quality of product than its competitors. There is no easier or more efficient method to ensure quality and diversity of goods and services delivered to the public than a healthy, properly regulated, competitive environment.

  6.  Governments by definition have no competitor. As the institution that sets fair and equitable rules for society, as the enforcer of these rules on society, as the institution that raises taxes and spends the money in order to meet its priorities, governments are unique, all-powerful, and largely beyond the reach of the individual citizen.

  7.  Over the years, citizens collectively have demanded representation and accountability through the institution of parliament. An independent and effective parliament can and should be able to ensure that a government serves its people, rather than providing an opportunity without hindrance, for elected people to enrich themselves with taxpayers' funds.

  8.  Unfortunately, people who are elected to a parliament can be weak. People who are elected to parliament can be bought. And people elected to a parliament can be ignorant of their responsibilities. When these things happen, parliaments are weakened and governments can get away with, dare we say it . . . .murder!

  9.  The executive becomes more powerful. Governors pocket the resources of the nation. The citizens are helpless to prevent the pillage of their own economy.

  10.  Bribery and corruption are dark forces that must be challenged at each and every opportunity. A number of starts have been made already. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development has a convention against the bribery of foreign public officials. The Council of Europe has defined corruption and has set out a code of conduct for parliamentarians. The Organisation of American States has a convention against corruption. African parliamentarians have created an organization of parliamentarians against corruption.

  11.  If the requirement is for more accountability, how can parliaments be strengthened to ensure that they are effective in delivering that additional accountability? How can parliamentarians insulate themselves against the dark forces of corruption? The answer is that motivators are required to strengthen parliamentarians rather than letting them succumb to the temptation of power and ill-gotten wealth. Parliamentarians need motivators to cause them to recognise their moral obligation is to lead society, not to plunder society. Parliaments and parliamentarians must be motivated to serve society rather than serve themselves.

  12.  So what are the motivators? Motivators are "forces beyond our control, which cause us to think and act in a certain way". In a democracy, the starting point is transparency. Transparency means that governments, willingly and voluntarily, publish meaningful, accurate and timely information. No modern society can flourish today without its government being open and transparent, keeping its public informed, and recognising that it is accountable to its people through fair and honest elections. This way, governments are held responsible to their citizens, provide programs for the enhancement of their society, and ensure that the rule of law is respected as a way of doing business.

  13.  There is no room in a society that wishes to grow and develop, for decisions to be made at the whim of a government official, be it a politician, bureaucrat, or judge. When a government's management of society is open to public scrutiny, and part of the public debate, it is more likely to be motivated to provide better government and better programs for lower taxation. Accountability, like competition, focuses government on serving the constituent as a client, and serving them well.

  14.  Legislators and parliamentarians are part of a privileged few who have been given the authority by their electors to approve public policy for the orderly management of their society. The responsibility to hold government to public account for the implementation of public policy is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly. Governments will provide the public policies that people endorse, or will be challenged by a political party who listens to the call of the electorate for change and improvement in public policy. Like the motivator of competition, when a business fails to deliver, it does not survive, openness and transparency says that a government that fails to deliver will be replaced.

  15.  When a government fails to address hunger, poverty, education, health and the prosperity of its citizens, parliamentarians have failed in their responsibility to hold government to account in the delivery of good public policy. But good governance does not come naturally. Parliamentarians rarely come to office with a deep knowledge of their new responsibilities. They do not go to college to become parliamentarians. Their election is seldom based upon their knowledge of good governance. In too many countries unfortunately, too many parliamentarians depend upon corrupt practices for their electoral success.

  16.  Collectively, parliamentarians have a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the role they play in governing our societies well. Parliamentarians also have a responsibility to share their knowledge with other parliamentarians who want it and need it. By spreading the commitment to good governance, parliamentarians can alleviate poverty and desperation, and replace it with hope, education, health and prosperity in the lives of so many.

  17.  Parliamentarians around the world are now recognizing the need for a global organisation of parliamentarians who are committed to good governance. The horrors that bribery and corruption impose upon society are far too prevalent today. Parliamentarians are the first line in holding governments accountable. Parliamentarians are the privileged few who have the responsibility to ensure that their governments are open, transparent, honest and effective.

  18.  For that reason, parliamentarians who are committed to improving good governance, who want to fight against corruption, and who want to challenge the status quo should form regional organisations. Corruption is quite often cultural in nature. Corruption in South America is different than corruption in Russia. Corruption in North America is different than corruption in India or China. For that reason, regional self-governing organizations under a global umbrella can be more effective in combating corruption than a unified approach. There already is an organisation called the African Parliamentarians Network Against Corruption under the leadership of Augustin Ruzindana, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee of Uganda.

  19.  There are commitments to start self-governing chapters in South Asia and South-east Asia. Interest has been expressed in China and Russia. There is a commitment in principle in Canada to such an organisation, and parliamentarians in Canada are seeking partners in the United States. A number of parliamentarians in South America endorse the organisation of a regional chapter for Latin America and are working towards that end. There are some European parliamentarians who recognize the benefits of their own organisation dedicated to fighting corruption.

  20.  Corruption is a global problem. It is everybody's problem. It is the scourge that keeps the powerless poor and destitute. Corruption is the dark force that bleeds money out of economic development. It is corruption that diverts resources from development of a society to the enrichment of a few.


  21.  Governments have no competition. In lieu of competition we have developed the concept of an effective parliament with the powers, resources, knowledge and independence to hold government accountable. But parliaments can only perform this role if they are strong, independent, and committed to exercising their powers.

  22.  Regional self-governing chapters of parliamentarians, as part of a Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) will enhance the capacity of parliamentarians. GOPAC, as an international organisation of parliamentarians, should be able to harness sufficient capability to provide moral support, resources, research, and information to parliamentarians, enabling them to do the job they were elected to do.

  23.  Leaders of the initiative in Canada hope to sponsor an International Conference of Parliamentarians Against Corruption in Ottawa, Canada, in the fall of 2002, because parliamentarians are the front line in the battle against corruption.

  24.  Parliamentarians must not submit to the easy temptation to talk and go home, to listen to exhortations and do nothing, to wring their hands in despair. Parliamentarians can and should start a process of making a difference because surely in this age, when so many people in this world have so little, and even that can be diminished by the greed and corruption of those in positions of public responsibility, parliamentarians owe their citizens no less than an effective parliament and good governance.

John Williams, MP

Chairman, Public Accounts Committee

House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada

February 2001

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Prepared 5 April 2001