Earlier this year I was asked by Parliamentary officials to contribute to a journal that the Research division of Parliament proposed to publish. It was to deal with Policy Issues in the Post-Conflict Era. Articles were supposed to be of around 2000 words in length, which made sense since I assume they wish to accommodate as many Members of Parliament as possible. I felt obliged then to try to put something down, though clearly one would not be able to cover as much ground as one would like to within such limits.

Being spurred to think about such matters, and to write, was however salutary, and it struck me then that perhaps this could be a topic for a series of articles to follow on the literature series I had contributed to the ‘Island’. I don’t know whether the role of Parliament in terms of seeking good governance would be a generally popular topic, but I thought it worth trying to put down some ideas in a comprehensive manner. For the next few weeks therefore, as an interlude before some other literary topics, I plan to discuss what a Parliament should be, and why we have not succeeded in getting from our legislature the service the country needs.

Purpose

Parliament is also known as the Legislature, which underlines the fact that its main purpose is making laws. Since Parliament does not consist of professional lawyers, who can be expected to understand existing law and suggest what new laws are needed, obviously Parliamentarians are not actually expected to make the law. That is reserved for professionals, specifically the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, with policy decided on by the Executive Branch of Parliament. The role of Parliament then is the limited one of discussing legislation and approving it.

They do this on behalf of the people, by virtue of the fact that they represent them. When the idea of a Parliament for the purpose of approving legislation first gained currency, the representatives of the people were comparatively distinguished and able men, selected to represent particular classes. In time, as democracy developed, they represented particular geographical areas, but these too were usually distinguished and able men. They had to be, if they were chosen as individuals by an electorate. When party politics began to take precedence, parties went through complex selection procedures to put forward someone capable, who would be competing against other able individuals put forward by other parties.

That process no longer operates in Sri Lanka, with the introduction of the proportional representation system in its preference vote seeking format. Candidates are chosen primarily for the capacity to get elected, in preference not only to the candidates of other parties, but more importantly, other candidates of their own parties. The capacities required then are very different from those required in someone assessing legislation on behalf of the entire nation.

Working as Representatives

Even before the proportional representation system was introduced, the role of a Member of Parliament had shifted, in that his representational function had taken precedence over his legislative one. Put simply, he had to make sure that the people he represented remained happy with him, and that became not only the criteria by which he was selected, it turned into the purpose of his being in Parliament.

Such a role in itself is no bad thing, and it is important that people of each particular area in the country have someone to act as an advocate for their wellbeing at the centre of government. However, given the enormous electorate which all elected Members of Parliament have now to serve, it is extremely difficult to work on behalf of the whole geographical area. Naturally they are inclined to think in terms of pockets of influence. Since in addition a whole host of individuals are servicing the same area, there is bound to be overlap on the one hand, and neglect of particular segments on the other.

Given these additional responsibilities, there is hardly any time to think of legislation in the broader sense. It is also rare to see coherent discussion of policy issues, in a manner that takes the wider interests of the country into consideration. This should be the function of Consultative Committees, but in fact those generally turn into forums for discussing particular parochial requirements.

That is when they do actually take place. Whilst a few Ministries have their Consultative Committees regularly, once a month as prescribed, most observe this prescription in the breach. This is not the fault of the Ministers or the Parliament administration, since with over 50 Ministries there is often neither space enough nor time for all Committees to meet. And, often, some Consultative Committees do not have a quorum. Again this is understandable, given that many meetings take place at the same time, and that Members are not really convinced of the wider purpose of the meetings held by most Ministries. Very rarely then are there opportunities for the legislators of the nation to discuss possible legislation, and suggest reforms on issues of national concern.

Deciding on Priorities

I would suggest then that, if constitutional reforms are contemplated at any stage in terms of working out a coherent system to maximize efficiency in the institutions of state, we decide as to the relative importance of the different roles legislators play. If they are expected to perform a representational function, then they should be allocated responsibility for limited areas in which they can function effectively on behalf of all the people they represent. They should be given resources and authority to fulfil this function satisfactorily, and they should not also be expected to perform other functions that might detract from this.

Since however their legislative function cannot be forgotten, given that that is the essence of what Parliament is, we must devise ways of strengthening their capacity to contribute. Though the current system, where members vote simply in terms of what has been prescribed by their parties, may serve the purpose of getting legislation passed, it is clearly not in the best interests of the people that those supposed to make decisions on their behalf in fact have no opportunity to discuss matters before acting simply as lobby fodder.

One way of moving in the right direction is to strengthen the Consultative Committee system. I did indeed suggest something of the sort some months back, after having obtained details of committee systems elsewhere from the Secretary General of the IPU, but needless to say, though the President seemed interested and asked me to pass on the proposals to the relevant people, I have not had any response as yet.

Island 9 March 2011 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=20242

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