Recently, I had the pleasant opportunity to study the Ethical Guidelines for Icelandic ournalists. Generally, ethical guidelines (also referred to as codes of conduct) are a set of principles that stipulate the professional duties and the manner in which a given profession should conduct its affairs and ensure its professional integrity.
For example, the journalist’s ethical guidelines require accuracy in reporting, consideration to the subject, respect for the confidentiality of sources and not accepting bribery or creating conflicts of interest, etc. Pretty basic stuff, but if journalists did not uphold these simple rules, the profession’s integrity would be shot.
In the last few years, a growing number of professional organisations and institutions have realised the importance of implementing ethical guidelines to safeguard the integrity of their work. Doctors, lawyers, dentist, accountants, journalists and even the organisation of Icelandic adagencies have agreed upon codes of conduct or ethical guidelines that professionals should refer to if there is uncertainty as to how matters should be handled.
But curiously, one profession in Iceland has remained lukewarm at best to the idea of implementing ethical guidelines. That is the Icelandic parliament. Although the subject has been brought up within the parliament repeatedly in the last few years, there are no ethical guidelines in place for members of the Icelandic parliament.
MPs are only human like the rest of us. They are just as fallible and prone to errors in judgment as everybody else. However, they do have an obligation towards the Icelandic people to do their best to uphold democracy in this country. Therefore, their ethical leeway should be kept at a bare minimum. We should not conduct matters in such a way that it is totally a matter of individual interpretation when ethical boundaries are crossed. Is it too much to ask that MPs agree to a set of principles that would spell out the ground rules for ethical behaviour? Have they proven themselves to be that infallible?
The basic condition that such ethical guidelines need to address is that all MPs will be required to make available information regarding all financial ties they may have to private companies. Secondly, all financial records of the political parties need to be made available to the public. If this basic condition is not met, we can never be sure which interest an MP is trying to protect, ours or theirs. And if we cannot be sure, then the profession as a whole has no integrity.
Is it wrong of me to assume that the democratic process is hampered for as long as MPs are allowed to own, run and accept paychecks from companies for board membership, while they are involved in making laws that affect the value of those companies? Is it wrong to assume that as long as we do not have full disclosure of financial contributions from companies to political parties, our democracy is limping? I don’t think so. I think these are very legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.
I do not mean to suggest that all Icelandic MPs are rotten scoundrels, making money on both sides of the table. But the possibility of an MP sitting on both sides of the table should never be present. Too many times have we seen where that leads. The best way to safeguard against such conflicts of interest is to agree to a code of conduct, or ethical guidelines that will dictate the basic professional obligations of MPs and how they should be met.
Alternatively, we could go in the complete opposite direction, and follow the repetitive mantra of privatisation, and simply privatise the parliament. Put it on the market along with the few remaining state owned companies. The much stricter obligation to make information available to investors that is placed on private firms would mean that we could finally see which company is buying which vote, and no one would have to wonder how much money the oil companies donated to different political parties. Admittedly, this might somewhat limit the democracy in this country, but would it matter much? We always seem to vote the same way anyhow.
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