Over the last few weeks I have been looking at ways in which Parliament might be made more effective in fulfilling its main functions. The fairly simple administrative changes that would help include

a)      Strengthening the financial oversight committees of Parliament, by ensuring swift follow up to their deliberations, and also consultation with executive authorities to promote suggested reforms.

b)      Improving the system of Consultative Committees, perhaps by distinguishing different areas for policy to be formulated, to be then implemented across a range of related Ministries (or Departments if the Cabinet is reduced in size).

c)       Streamlining private business mechanisms by ensuring better focused questions and adjournment motions, while also developing a system of priorities for private business motions.

All these would however require a more dedicated approach by Members of Parliament. For this purpose better familiarization mechanisms should be devised. The basic training now given to new Parliamentarians deals with administrative matters but, to promote greater professionalism with regard to the business of Parliament itself, it may be best to have intensive group trainings. These could concentrate on different fields according to the particular concerns of the groups – ie a group that is concerned with financial oversight, another concerned with mechanisms for redress for the public, another looking at policy formulation with regard to the main functions of the state (Justice, Finance, Foreign Relations and Trade, Security, Agriculture and Lands, Industry and Commerce, Public Works, Local Government, Social Services, Energy and the Environment).

Constitutional Change – Electoral Reform that ensures efficient representation

All this presupposes that Members of Parliament will want to contribute actively to governance. This may not be accurate, given the enormous responsibilities most of them have with regard to massive electorates, where they fulfil a variety of roles. They have to promote infrastructural development and find employment, they have to resolve disputes and coordinate with a host of officials belonging to a range of departments. And, in doing all this, they have to compete against other Members of Parliament working in precisely the same areas. Obviously to be successful they have to also raise adequate resources for initiatives and support mechanisms.

I don’t think anyone doubts that this is becoming an increasingly impossible task. All parties agree on the need for electoral reform, and with luck we shall be going back soon to a constituency system, with wards for local elections. However, it is worrying that we seem to be grafting this system onto the existing collective mechanism. Surely the recent catastrophes with regard to rejection of party lists by election officials should have made us realize that continuing with such collective systems is unwise.

But, sadly, we still think in terms of collectives, which means that, if something is wrong with one part, the whole is ruined. We should rather go back fully to a system of individual responsibility for a distinct geographical area. This will also allow electors to choose particular individuals for their own areas even if these are incapable or unwilling to become part of a general collective.

It has been argued that a collective system is necessary if we are to ensure some element of proportionality in the final result. I would certainly agree that proportionality is essential, since we know that the artificial majorities of 1970 and 1977 created problems for the country as well as those very majorities. But the answer lies in the dual vote system, whereby people vote for individuals to represent them in constituencies, and cast a second vote for a party. The final composition of Parliament is proportional to the votes cast for parties, but people can vote for individuals not belonging to the party of their choice.

The important thing here is that areas should be able to select individuals they think would represent them most effectively. Such individuals could then work concentratedly on the welfare of the people in the area they represent. They could also be held accountable discretely.

Members of Parliament who have such responsibilities may however still find it difficult to fulfil all the other requirements of legislators we have discussed. But they will certainly be able to play a more knowledgeable role in Consultative Committees since they would be more acutely aware of the implications of policies for their particular areas. They could also play with regard to private business a more coherent role in ensuring attention to the particular problems of the areas they represent.

With regard to wider issues, such as financial oversight, a system of election based on two votes also provides, through Members appointed on the list, an opportunity to ensure the expertise needed. Such members could also contribute more to the legislative process by active participation in the Committee Stage that is now downplayed.

Constitutional Change – Separating the Executive and the Legislative

If then Parliamentarians have full roles to play with regard to their constituencies – for which, it should be noted, they should be given greater resources – and with regard to Legislation and Oversight, it may be useful to consider separating the Executive from Parliament as happens in other countries with Executive Presidential systems. The President would then be free to appoint those he thought the best available to his Cabinet, either from outside Parliament or from within. Parliamentarians thus appointed would give up their seats, and play no further part in the Legislative process.

This would provide the Head of Government with greater expertise to fulfil his Executive responsibilities. At the same time it would strengthen the main functions of Parliament, which now take second place to the imperatives of the Executive. Parliamentarians functioning in the Executive too cannot, given their collective responsibility to their fellows in office, exercise oversight functions on behalf of the areas they represent if this involves questioning their peers. It is also difficult for them to participate actively in financial oversight committees.

Finally, I would like to suggest that we think of something of this sort also for local government. At present we spend a lot of money on institutions full of individuals who have few actual responsibilities. We should rather think of moving to a system where we have one elected Chief Executive, who works through established Departments and a few appointed officials selected purely on merit. However, he would be held accountable to oversight committees that are made up in proportion to the votes of electors. Members of such committees would be appointed through a list system, and would not be paid except for basic expenses. Thus parties would nominate those with sufficient expertise to check on the work of the executive in any area.

I realize these concepts are novel, and it may take time for them to be discussed constructively. But they represent one way out from the current problems of governance, where we find too many functions mixed up for each of them to have the attention it deserves. Rationalization is not always easy, but it should be one of the main aims of reform.

The Island 7 April 2011 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=22528