Political parties represented in parliament have their respective caucuses whose main mandate is to adopt a common party position on a matter to be tabled in parliament. This position (and I stand corrected) is usually binding on all Members of Parliament (MPs) where any deviation therefrom constitutes a serious misconduct subject to a disciplinary process. But MPs le bone ke batho ba nama le madi (individuals in their own right endowed with humanely possible capacity to make informed decisions) who should at times exercise some level of independent thinking given the interests of society which could be at variance with the official party thinking. This conversation attempts to answer the question posed above in so far as to whether holding political office is in conflict with MPs freedom of conscience. But what is this freedom of conscience? Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of conscience as ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. Another definition from elsewhere is ‘the right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality’. Owing to the binding nature of parliamentary caucuses, freedom of conscience of MPs appears somewhat curtailed or downrightly prohibited. Opposition parties have made us believe that their MPs are allowed some level of independent thought and thinking while the ruling party Chief Whip recently suggested that their MPs do not enjoy such leverage. In the recent past, I have not heard an opposition party MP expressing views in conflict with party positions while some in the majority party have done so.
Some decisions taken at caucus meetings may have a direct but negative impact on say religious beliefs and professional ethics of an MP. We have a few of such MPs. Political parties decide on a wide range of issues some emotive; some against professional ethics of some professions like medical doctors and lawyers. How does a medical doctor MP whose professional oath is to save life react to a party position on abortion? How does a pastor MP react to the same? MPs whose religious beliefs and consciences do not allow them to participate in any act whose end result is to take someone’s life should feel politics puts them between a rock and a hard place. Truth be told, cabinet or some members of political leadership take decisions to eliminate compatriots from planet earth for whatever reasons. Kalafatis is one such example. In these decisions, people whose beliefs are against doing so are compelled to implement them. It becomes a matter of whether you are with us or not. If these types of MPs tell us that professional virtues don’t apply once in political office, it will be hypocrisy of the highest order and downright dishonesty. Or is it a question of throwing out your beliefs and morality once on a parliament chair and claiming them back as soon as you stand at the pulpit? Of late and particularly with the majority party, their MPs have exhibited positions on various issues which are in conflict with party position, some citing that such party positions are not in the public interests. The majority party recently decided to shut down BCL mine operations where Hon Moswaane sought a ministerial sub-committee report on the same so that he could make an informed input in the matter to his constituency. In his view and according to how I understood him, MPs across the board were never informed about this decision before it was implemented. His next door counterpart Hon Billy Buti recently asked the President to come to Parliament to personally respond to MPs comments on his State of the Nation Address. The majority party views these calls by their MPs totally unacceptable and against its position on these matters. I think the two Hon MPs are raising important national issues which if subjected to an opinion poll, would score big.
In the above two examples, the two MPs consciences indicate that their party’s positions on matters they have raised are not in the interests of citizens across the board. The BCL shut down is a national crisis in which devastating socio-economic consequences have hit hard on the former employees and their immediate to extended families and the economy. Botswana follows a First-Past-The-Post parliamentary system where MPs are answerable to their individual constituents. While the majority party has taken positions on various issues, why would it stifle its MPs on issues which cut across the nation? In my view and given the above, I propose that on the question of freedom to conscience with regards to religious beliefs and professional ethics, political parties should make provisions in their constitutions to allow MPs some latitude to exercise their own consciences on such issues. A religious MP should choose whether to participate or abstain when an issue like abortion is up for discussion and to a vote. The same provision should also be accorded in the Constitution of the country. There are issues like homosexuality which to some people are considered taboo to be discussed in private let alone in the public arena like parliament in some countries. Why don’t we allow MPs similar protection on other issues which may not necessarily be as emotive and morally challenging but professionally and religiously against their consciences? I believe parliamentary caucuses to some degree stifle the rights of independent thinking and freedom of conscience of MPs as individuals in their own right. While the argument is correct that party positions are binding on all members, these do not at all times resonate well with their constituents particularly where bread-and-butter issues are concerned. The majority party position on BCL is one such position. I am waiting to see if Hon Moswaane and Hon Buti will be hauled over the coals for their public pronouncements on matters referred to above. Judge for Yourself!