Cutting down on election costs and refunding these through public funds

The reforms I have suggested may seem esoteric, of interest only to the few people who are concerned about constitutional principles. They could be dismissed as the obsessions of a theoretician, with little practical experience of politics.

But they do have a very practical application, which will be extremely beneficial not only to the people, but also to politicians. For instance, it is obvious to everyone that the present electoral system requires massive resources on the part of individuals. A few individuals do have such resources in terms of personal fortunes, and a very few of these have acquired such fortunes in ways that the public at large would find acceptable. But the vast majority have either to engage in businesses that provide massive quick returns – which entails obligations that are not always desirable – or else have to find resources in other ways.

This has contributed to what I still find bizarre, the general acceptance of the principle that Parliamentarians sell off the permits they obtain to buy duty free vehicles. One former opposition Parliamentarian has indeed confessed to this openly, in claiming that he was able to bestow largesse through the sale of his permit. This is not generally considered abhorrent, and certainly I can understand what has occurred, because the expenses now of elections are astronomical. I can claim no credit for not having as yet made use of my permit, because I was fortunate enough to have been appointed on the National List.

It would be absurd then for me to sit in judgment on much better politicians than I am, who have had to work through a wasteful system. And I should add that I sympathize with my colleagues who used to serve as Provincial Councillors, and who are now unable to obtain permits because five years have not elapsed since they got such permits in their previous incarnation. Five years did not lapse between them having to find resources for Provincial Council elections and finding resources for the General Election, and naturally they feel cheated that they should suffer a loss that old hands in Parliament need not endure.

But the trouble with such practices is that they can become a habit. The assumption that develops is that the system requires one to make money, not only to recover what one has spent, but to continue to bestow largesse. It must be obvious then that going back to a single member constituency system will, apart from saving a lot of paper, and cutting down on labour costs – which include not just cash payments, but the provision of bottles of alcohol, considered essential by the vast majority of those who put up posters – prevent public funds going to waste.

Limiting the creation of jobs for electoral purposes

Another area in which much waste happens is with regard to the relentless pressure to create jobs for potential voters. Over the last several decades the assumption has developed in this country that it is the responsibility of the state not only to create jobs – an assumption that is made all over the world, and rightly so – but also to appoint people to these jobs. Thus, instead of the state encouraging the creation of jobs that would be productive, which would involve developing conditions in which the private sector could work out rationally what should be done and by whom, on the basis of effectiveness and efficiency, politicians are expected to appoint potential voters to jobs. When there aren’t enough jobs for such voters, and of course there can never be enough, they are expected simply to create positions, regardless of whether there is work to be done.

In the past, there were several instances of Ministers simply hiring people. With the introduction of greater responsibility, it became necessary to obtain permission to announce vacancies. This has caused delays in filling positions that are essential, because decision makers in the Management Services Division, or whoever makes decisions, is naturally suspicious. On the other hand, once the vacancy is decided on, there is much pressure on Ministers to appoint personnel from their electorates. I came across a simple example of what occurs, when I found that all the security guards at the South-Eastern University in Oluvil came from Galle, in the days when Richard Pathirana was Minister of Education. When I expressed surprise at this, the guards explained that most new workers in the Galle Port came from Oluvil, Mr Ashraff being then the Minister of Ports.

Numerous examples of this abound, and this government has tried to limit abuse by allocating positions islandwide. But the system is not foolproof, and it would be foolish to think that, with the best will in the world, any government will be able to limit appointments on the basis of purely personal considerations by Ministers, so long as their primary responsibility is to their electorate. And, even if we revert to a single constituency system, though the pressures will be less, the principle will still obtain, that Ministers will be expected to appoint people from amongst their voters to positions, whether or not there is work to be done.

The pressure this creates extends not only to the creation of jobs, but also to the creation of Ministries. Clearly, if some Members of Parliament have the opportunity to provide employment, then others will demand this privilege. Over the years therefore we have seen Cabinets grow in size. I believe any pledge to reduce the size of the Cabinet cannot be upheld, because under the current system the pressures are enormous, and the argument that limits will lead to unfairness to many is a forceful one. Thus we saw that President Kumaratunga in 2000 was unable to quite live up to her commitment, when the JVP put her on probation, to limit the Cabinet to 20 – and I pointed out to the JVP at the time that this was entirely their fault, for not having insisted on a Constitutional Amendment, and instead having concentrated on the illogical 17th Amendment.

A few months later, Ranil Wickeremesinghe, having started with a Cabinet of 20, on an entirely arbitrary basis, which left the Minister of Education (or rather of Human Resources Development, as he was called)outside the Cabinet, within a few weeks created six more Ministerial posts. It is thus silly for the Opposition to jeer at any expansion of the Cabinet, and indeed to single out the creation of Senior Ministers, which at least saves the public some money in terms of limiting the creation of unnecessary jobs. Rather, they should work together with Government to develop a principle that would get rid of both the need and the possibility of multiplying both Ministries and jobs.

A glance at what happens in most countries will make clear that the simplest answer is to divorce the Executive from Parliament. The President could then select people he thought best equipped to run government departments, and they would not have other obligations which cannot be avoided. Politicians would be eligible for these positions, but they would have to choose between executive responsibilities, and continuing to serve their electorates.

Such a change would need to be accompanied by measures that reaffirm the primacy of elected politicians. They should be left with enough resources to work for their electorates, and perhaps there should be limits on the powers of the Executive – including limits on seeking political office – that emphasize the need to concentrate on results rather than popularity in fulfilling official duties. Accountability to the elected representatives of the people should also continue.

Such a system may not solve all our problems with regard to the effectiveness of the Executive or the Legislature, but it would certainly make clearer the different responsibilities involved, and the best way of fulfilling them.

Island 20 April 2011 –