As we have seen, Members of Parliament do not have much of a role to play in the initiation of legislation, which is largely left to the Executive. The same is true of the second principal responsibility of parliamentarians, namely the budget. Formulation of that too is left almost wholly to the Executive. In neither case can we say however that this is inappropriate, since on the whole laws and regulations and financial provision require an expertise that Members of Parliament not involved in departmental duties cannot possess.

In other countries however a distinct role remains in terms of private members’ bills, as well as questions and adjournment motions, through which the occasional significant contribution can be made to discussion of important issues and thus, one hopes, to national policy too. In Sri Lanka however none of these seem now to serve much general purpose.

With regard to private members bills, unfortunately we have an old tradition that such bills are taken up in the order in which they are proposed. Thus an enterprising member can stuff up the space for such bills by putting forward a dozen and more at the very inception of a parliamentary session.

When these bills are clearly intended to score debating points, with no real concern to promote reform, they end up being of no interest to anybody, except possibly the person who proposed them. Thus the first private bill before Parliament in the current session is one that criticizes the assumption by the President of particular portfolios. Since such an assumption is explicitly provided for in the current constitution, and since all previous Presidents have taken on various portfolios, it is apparent that the bill is not really serious. Even the opposition recognizes this, for the bill has hardly been debated, the Chief Opposition Whip working together with government members to ensure that there is no quorum when it is taken up.

So the Sri Lankan Parliament is in the sorry state of not having concluded even one private members bill as yet, almost a year after Parliament was convened. Sadly the same philosophy seems to be followed with the vast majority of Parliamentary questions, another tool that should be used to ensure accountability on the part of the Executive. A large number of questions do not address policy issues, but are used to draw attention to information of a parochial nature.

The importance of question time

This does not mean that there are no good questions. Several members have proved able to draw attention to systemic problems through asking pertinent questions. But, given that many questions serve little purpose, it is no wonder that Ministers do not take them seriously. Thus many answers have to be given by the Chief Government Whip, who has indeed complained about the fact that he is helpless to ensure that Ministers attend. The Speaker too has noted that subject ministers should be ‘present in the House during the question session and it was a right of the Opposition to raise their questions and obtain answers’, but the practice of absenteeism continues.

I should note that, while I agree wholeheartedly with the observation of the Speaker, I would add the proviso that it is the right of government members too to raise questions. Sadly few do, and there are indeed those who think that raising such questions is an exercise in criticism. This need not be the case, and government members too should use questions to draw attention to problems which government should resolve, for their own sake as well as that of the country. But many Ministers simply postpone responses, even to questions designed to help them do a better job for the country. And, though I believe this is improper, I can understand their boredom when many questions are partisan in scope and parochial in content. It would make much more sense then to provide written answers for such questions, and instead confine oral questions to those which deal with points of policy and practice of wider significance.

The comparative uselessness of these mechanisms can be seen from the fact that few Members wait for the Adjournment Motions, which are intended to promote discussion of issues of current national interest. These have turned now into occasions for individuals to speak about something that interests them, usually to hardly anyone save the Minister concerned. Though those who speak are usually deeply concerned about the issue in question, there is no opportunity for productive ideas to find fertile ground in which to flourish. The whole exercise seems just a formality, and nothing comes of it.

Strengthening Consultative Committees

Underlying all this is the fact that there is no sense in which members who do not belong to the executive are expected to contribute to executive processes. Very few of the Consultative Committees actually function, and only a small proportion of designated members actually attend. I recall that when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Consultative Committees were a nightmare, since one had to go early and then wait until a quorum was dredged up. The quorum it should be noted is just 3 members, but even this proved difficult to achieve each and every time.

Often a few JVP members of parliament were in attendance, but they were not members, and had only come to pursue particular cases in which they were interested. After two actual members of the Committee apart from the Minister had been persuaded to attend, often to depart soon afterwards, the JVP members would raise their concerns. These were laudable, but they could clearly have been settled through a private approach to the Minister and his officials. They should not have taken up time intended for Consultation, which I think should be confined to policy issues.

Things are certainly better now, with regard to many Ministries, and some new Ministers have provided excellent presentations on the work and scope of their Ministries. But there are still problems, and perhaps insuperable ones, given the number of Committees we now have, with no time or space for all to meet. One way perhaps to address the problem, given also some confusion as to their responsibilities with the vast number of different Ministries often addressing similar subjects, would be to have Committees for wider areas, on the lines suggested by the appointment of Senior Ministers. Members could then be allocated to just one or two of these areas, and would then be expected, through concentration on areas of particular interest to them, to contribute actively to discussion and policies. This might also help to promote cohesive action in areas in which the current proliferation of Ministries makes this difficult.

The Island 24 March  – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=21387

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