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Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – 20 January 2013

I plan in the three hours of this workshop to cover a lot of ground, which I hope will lead to much discussion, and to some understanding of the principles of government, and actual practice in Sri Lanka. This will require being direct, but the criticisms I make will I hope provoke thought, and encourage efforts at reforms that are essential.

Of all countries that have a long democratic tradition, Sri Lanka has perhaps the most dysfunctional structure of government. If you look at constitutional dispensations elsewhere, there are essentially two. The first, springing from Britain, and known as the Westminster model, combines the Executive and the Legislature. All Ministers come from Parliament, and report to it directly.

The second is based on the doctrine of Separation of Powers, and was first put into practice in the United States of America. The Executive is entirely separate there from the Legislature. A directly appointed President selects a Cabinet to run the various Departments of Government. Parliamentarians, in addition to passing laws, also however play a role with regard to the executive, in that they are in charge of the budget that finances the work of the Executive. They are also meant to monitor its work through the financial controls they exercise, and to contribute to policy through Committees.

Our Constitution is a hybrid of these two systems. Though it is claimed that it is similar to the French, where there is a Prime Minister in addition to a President, the differences are immense. Though the President in France must appoint a Prime Minister in terms of command of a majority in Parliament, he can appoint anyone from outside Parliament to this post, and to any executive office. Anyone who comes from Parliament, including the Prime Minister, must give up his Parliamentary position before becoming part of the Executive.

Thus the Executive concentrates on getting things done, without the demands of legislation or constituency requirements. And it has no role to play in oversight. Correspondingly, at Parliament can exercise its oversight function without being dominated by the Executive branch. In Sri Lanka all aspects of Parliament are controlled by Ministers. They chair all Committees, whereas even in Britain, though members of the Cabinet are obviously more equal than others, Committees are left to backbenchers.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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