Presentation at a meeting on the COPE Report arranged by Women for Good Governance, Sri Lanka, January 30th 2012

This is the second panel discussion on the COPE Report that I have been invited to in less than a week, so I thought I should not repeat myself, in case any of you had been at the other event. However, I have brought a few copies of my presentation then, and it is available on my blog

I thought today that, given the wider interests of the organizers, I should talk in general about principles of good governance. I had a series of articles in the ‘Island’ some months back on the role of Parliament in promoting good governance, and that too is available on the blog, in a separate section. I had written these following a request from the Parliamentary administration to contribute to a journal they had started. Sadly I was the only Parliamentarian to contribute to that journal, which I thought a sad reflection on my colleagues, Including those I have come to think of as the second and third most intelligent and objective individuals in Parliament who are speaking with me here today.

Sadly however I now think that the reflection is on me, for thinking that detailed analysis of public policy serves any purpose. My articles drew no response whatsoever in the press, except for one thoughtful article by a man called Wijeweera whom I did not otherwise know. Sadly we have lost the custom of building on the good ideas of others. The papers are full of individuals referring to the writings of others in order to attack them. Rarely however do people who think on the same lines refer to similar ideas when they advance their own, so the result is that each of us seems to be working in a vacuum. My colleagues therefore who concentrate on more parochial considerations are perhaps wiser than I am, in giving priority to their own political concerns, in speeches and pronouncements, rather than trying to develop discussions on principles that might contribute to reform.

I say all this because I was particularly impressed by the credo the organizer of this event sent me in requesting my participation. She said that you wanted to suggest ways forward to the government rather than be antagonistic, and that you did not stop with recommendations but used several strategies to make change happen. I will therefore use this opportunity to look at the different reasons for misuse of public funds and suggest ways in which you can contribute to reform.

Since the discussion is based on the COPE report, I will concentrate on the role of Parliament in promoting such reforms. As you know our powers are limited, and the manner in which Parliament is now elected has made it difficult for Parliamentarians to work coherently at their legislative role. Parliament has essentially two main functions. The main purpose is to make laws, or rather to approve them, since the formulation of new laws is now considered the prerogative of the Executive. This is a pity, given the role Private Members’ Bills could play in drawing attention to matters that need remedial action, but the ridiculous manner in which my colleagues pile up motions makes it clear that we can expect no intelligent input in that area. Efforts by Mr Sumanthiran and myself to amend Standing Orders to emphasize the possible creative role Parliament could play have come to naught, the victim again of parochial infighting.

Unfortunately we now have a method of election that denies personal initiative to Members of Parliament. They are seen as simply lobby fodder, elected through a party and therefore not supposed as legislators to be unduly independent. This nonsensical concept has survived even the introduction of the preference system, and sadly efforts to reform again seem to have collapsed. Let me start then by suggesting that the first thing your organization should do is spearhead a campaign to ensure reform of the electoral system. You can do this through petitions as well as articles, to make it clear to those who can make changes happen that this is what the country needs. I have no doubt that the country at large knows how destructive the present system has been, but if you leave it to those who have got in through this system to reform it, it is unlikely that anything will happen.

I say this with regard to COPE, because the system has contributed to the total abnegation of the second responsibility of parliamentarians, namely passing the budget and monitoring its operation. We have this power by virtue of our legislative role, but the fact that revenue is raised through laws has given parliaments over the years control not only of supply, but also an obligation to ensure that that supply is used properly for the people on behalf of whom we have approved supply.

Unfortunately what I term the representative function of Parliamentarians has now completely taken most of them over, given the need to promote the welfare of people in massive areas, since most Parliamentarians have to function in entire Districts. It is no coincidence that the three speakers you have invited today are all National List Members, which leaves us more time to think and work in terms of principles. But, as you know from the composition of the National Lists, other considerations than those originally envisaged play a role in appointments, so that we are comparatively isolated in Parliament.

There are exceptions such as the extraordinarily able Member who chairs the Petitions Committee, which has also recently produced a very helpful report, but by and large you should be agitating for a system that ensures there are more people who can work as Parliamentarians in the old sense of the word. This was envisaged through the German mixed system of elections to which everyone pays lip service, but unfortunately the proposals that have been brought before Parliament for electoral reform, starting with the perversion of the German system proposed in 1995, have been based not on principles but on perceived advantages, and have accordingly been aborted.

This is the sadder in that we need to strengthen the Committee system in Parliament. Soon after I got into Parliament, I presented to the President a proposal for oversight committees which I had obtained from the Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The President, who is both swift and sharp, thought these a good idea and asked me to pass them on to the Leader of the House. Unfortunately, that office in Parliament does not tend to respond to letters, and my proposals were swallowed up, to be regurgitated some months later by the Hon Karu Jayasuriya. He may of course have got them independently from the IPU, but it is a measure of the refusal of Parliament to take itself seriously that ideas the President thought should be followed should die without trace, only to emerge again from the opposition. I believe something similar happened to the proposed Bill about Freedom of Information, which is part of the Presidential vision, but which was simply not worked on coherently by those who should have taken on responsibility for reform.

Instead, we continue with an archaic system, inherited from the British, which the British have long changed. Bills come to Parliament in a manner that no one can understand, because all we get are amendments, often themselves to amendments. Sometimes this leads to sheer nonsense, given the declining abilities of the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, but nobody cares. We also spend a great deal of time passing regulations, whereas we should have a regulations committee, as happens in other countries, to look into such matters, and simply make sure that the Parliamentary Act under which such regulations are made is not being abused. At the last session, for instance, we passed regulations about the import amongst other things of swine semen and extracts of glands for organotherapeutic uses, which seem to me details which should not take up the time of Parliament. Meanwhile urgent national business, to do with expanding opportunities for education, with the protection of children, with electoral reform, with freedom of information, with land rights in the context of protracted occupation during terrorist times, are all hopelessly delayed.

With regard to finance, we need to be clear about why abuses occur. Whilst obviously there is dishonesty, we find that far more often there is carelessness and waste, arising from the absence of clear and simple regulations as well as the absence of oversight systems. Much of this is the responsibility of the Treasury, which now has much more work than it can manage, but which has not made any attempt over the last half century to streamline its powers and delegate management to others. I have suggested that we should ask for revision of Aministrative and Financial Regulations, and indeed suggested that the former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Faiz Mohideen, be asked to over see this, with a clear mandate to streamline operations and make responsibilities clear, but I fear such simple mechanisms are unlikely to see the light of day.

Oversight is facilitated by Transparency, and I believe we should develop systems whereby accounts are readily available to all stakeholders. I remember years ago suggesting that the universities should make schedules of expenditure available to students, whereupon the then Chairman of the UGC, who presided over perhaps the greatest wastage of funds in the University system through what was called the IRQUE Project, telling me that transparency being ensured by the accounts being audited and submitted to Parliament. This idea, that we should waste time and money in shutting several stable doors after horses have gorged themselves to death, is ridiculous, when instead we should be promoting timely interventions and, more importantly, awareness on the part of those responsible that they are being closely monitored.

I will end by hoping that the follow up to COPE will not simply be the trading of allegations, and witch hunts against particular institutions that have been particularly bad. Whilst obviously remedial action as recommended in the Report is a must, we must concentrate on developing mechanisms to ensure that such remedial action is not regularly required in the future. This can be simply done if we make sure that those responsible are facilitated to act expeditiously without being straitjacketed through regulations that inhibit only the honest – for the evidence we sifted through makes it clear that the few who are determined to make money cut through such regulations; but that all are required to report regularly to oversight bodies that include stakeholders. And we need to make sure that the responsibilities of Parliament in this regard are fulfilled though promoting a system that will get us more Parliamentarians who can spend more time on financial oversight as well as study of proposed legislation.

But perhaps we all get not what we need but what we deserve.

Daily News 1 Feb 2012