DURING a television show recently, House Ethics committee chairman Demetris Syllouris in speaking about the complexities of conflicts of interest, expressed doubts as to whether the issue could be satisfactorily regulated, due to these same complexities.
Then, he went on to illustrate with a ridiculous example that appeared to betray his utter lack of understanding on the issue – or it was a deliberate attempt to obfuscate.
To make his point, he posed the rhetorical question as to whether MPs should be barred from voting on anything related to fuel prices, since they themselves were consumers.
His ‘argument’ was promptly knocked back by former Attorney-general Alecos Markides, who called it sophistry. Markides responded that rules on conflict of interest apply where a specific group or individual may benefit at the expense of the majority.
One thing Syllouris was correct on, is that conflict of interest issues are complex, and based on the experience of
other countries, and even the EU itself, he is correct in saying it cannot be satisfactorily regulated.
A conflict of interest in itself is not evidence of wrongdoing. It is a situation a politician may find himself in due to circumstances that do not have to lead to a corrupt act.
A small place like Cyprus is particularly vulnerable as conflict of interest situations are hard to avoid. We have witnessed several in recent months involving the central bank governor, the president’s law office and the list of MPs’ non-performing loans.
Around 20 years ago, the UK set out guidelines for those in public office. They did not take up reams of paper: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Unfortunately, for most politicians the motto is ‘ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you’, to quote JFK in reverse.
Corruption breeds corruption and it can start with as little as one ‘harmless’ favour, which turns into another and snowballs from there. It is how politicians are made and science has proven that with each unethical action, the neural pathways in the brain become rewired to make an unethical action more palatable next time around.
If politicians cannot be relied on to voluntarily disclose a conflict of interest or a potential conflict, or to act accordingly by excusing themselves from voting to ensure the greater good rather than their own narrow interests, they must be regulated no matter how complex that might turn out to be.
Beating around the bush about the complexities just reinforces the view that they are corrupt and looking for a way to delay having to become accountable. There is no foolproof method to regulate it completely but it starts with a mechanism for disclosure. The rest is just common sense.
Politicians are voted in to look out for the greater good. If they can’t put that into context, or have to be regulated to death to do so, then there is something fundamentally wrong with them and with the system.