Tuesday, July 16

How should a government minister behave?

Ashfaqur RahmanMr. Latif Siddique we are told is a habitual abuser of his authority. He is also foul-mouthed and quite abusive in his behaviour towards his officers and colleagues.

In spite of numerous press reports about his conduct, the government of the day must have found some reason to retain him in his cabinet post. In fact, he was quite a senior minister and in cabinet meetings we noticed him sitting close to the prime minister. It must have surprised many government insiders as to how he acquired this position of confidence in spite of his known misdemeanours.

The prime minister herself may have been surprised to hear what the minister said in a Tangail Samity meeting in New York. He had accompanied the prime minister to New York as part of her delegation to this year’s UN General Assembly session.

The nation was aghast at his disdainful remarks about the Holy Hajj as well as the revered Prophet Mohammed (sm). Who was he looking to please with his invectives? He also had the gall to state that what he said was what he felt sincerely in his heart and he was not ready to recant.

In Bangladesh, there are many citizens who are not Muslims, but no one in his right mind will publicly speak against Islam or any other religion. This is not in our culture, nor in our norm. No one accepts such outbursts, and the perpetrators are rightly condemned and punished under the law of spreading dissension in society.

So Latif Siddique is subject to serious censure and condemnation and is punishable. He cannot retain his high office after making such public utterances.

But why did Mr. Latif Siddique make these derogatory remarks? They were not relevant to the meeting. Nor was his opinion on this sought for. So what was his agenda behind this misdemeanour? Our various agencies should look closely at this aspect.

The prime minister’s decision to dismiss him from the cabinet after taking the concurrence of the president was not only timely but also the correct one. Now let the law of the land take its normal course to arraign him.

The question that everyone is asking is, do we not have a ‘ministerial code of conduct’ vetted by parliament and issued by the Cabinet Office to be followed by ministers once they are sworn in? Do not forget that most of the ministers are members of the parliament.

At the end of the day, the people of his constituency who voted him to the parliamentary seat would like to judge him for his unseemly conduct. They would like to know why he was voted for and how come they were not aware of his strong opinions.

If we indeed have such a ministerial code of conduct in our books, then the public should be told about its existence. The people have lost faith in politics and politicians.

This government has a moral responsibility to restore the people’s trust in itself. As is known from a study of such a code in other advanced democracies, the ministerial code contains certain general principles.

They outline the overarching duty of a minister, like upholding the administration of justice and protecting the integrity of public life. It also reminds him to follow the principle of collective responsibility when it comes to decisions taken in a cabinet meeting and to which he is a party.

A minister is also expected to account for actions taken by him to Parliament regarding his ministry, directorates and agencies. No minister should mislead Parliament in order to slip out of his responsibilities. Another important principle he should adhere to is to ensure that there is no conflict between his public duties and his private interests.

He should be careful in not using government resources for his party political ends. He should at the same time uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service. He should not ask them to act in a way that would violate their own civil service disciplinary code.

Besides, there are specific codes which must be followed by a minister while in public life. He must know that when he is called to duty as a minister he always needs to act solely in public interest. Nothing should be done by which a minister can gain financially and use it for his family and friends.

No privilege given to him in public interest should be for his personal gain. Thus, a minister should not sell his integrity to be under financial or other obligation which would hamper the performance of his official duties. A minister cannot give personal opinion on any subject which goes against the general will of the people and the state.

That could spell disaster for him. He should not do so and still stay as a part of the cabinet where everyone subscribes to the agreed opinions.

Mr. Latif Siddique, as a minister, is in breach of several of the general and specific provisions of any such code of ministerial conduct, if it exists. From all this it is abundantly clear that the electorate in any country does not need the services of lunatics, freeloaders and deviants to run their public affairs.

If any minister behaves erratically or in violation of the norm, he should be immediately disciplined by the prime minister in a parliamentary system. If he or she continues to behave in conflict with public interest his service should be terminated as per rules in consultation with the head of state. It must be remembered that in a democracy the people are the final arbiter of affairs and they are hardly forgiving when it comes to punishing recalcitrant ministers.

Let the prime minister initiate a ‘code of ministerial conduct’ immediately if none exists. We do not need any needless political distractions like the Latif Siddique episode. The people are fed up with such political shenanigans.