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Having written a hundred and more articles on Human Rights, I thought it time now to turn to another subject where the Sri Lankan state could do better. As I found with regard to many areas in which Rights could be strengthened and protected more effectively, problems arise more from incompetence and carelessness rather than deliberate wrongdoing.
In order to improve things, it seems to me vital that we ensure greater discipline and efficiency in all organs of government, and in particular the administration. I am not sure that writing about it will improve things, because I am sure that others too are aware of shortcomings and wish to improve things, it is simply that the will and energy are lacking. Sometimes then it seems much easier to just let things be.
But often one does come across situations in which ignorance or a lack of clarity are the reasons for systemic failure, and I hope that at least in these areas some reforms can be swiftly put in place by those in charge. Often the failure to hold officials accountable for their shortcomings contributes to further shortcomings, until in time the officials do not even realize that they have failed to do their duty.
An obvious example of this came up in Parliament recently. Since, if we wish to strengthen our institutions and ensure that they function more effectively, the best place to start is the supposed fountainhead of all authority, the Legislature, it seems then a good idea to start with this.
One of the problems with Parliament was highlighted recently when it turned out that Bills to be discussed and approved in Parliament had not been distributed in time. The Chief Government Whip was reported as having said that a legal officer should be appointed to overlook the legal affairs of Parliament, while the Speaker declared that ‘he would not have hesitated to take punitive action against ministry officials responsible for the delay in presenting complete copies of 21 financial bills to Parliament had he been vested with powers to do so’.
These statements are indicative of the administrative culture we now suffer from. It seems to me that appointment of a separate legal officer would be a retrogade step because it indicates that the Secretary General of Parliament is not able to fulfil his duties effectively. The Secretary General of Parliament, and his assistants, are lawyers, and they are supposed to be the Legal Advisors to the Speaker. Unfortunately, in part because of the political culture that was developed after 1977, appropriate advice has not always been given, and sometimes it has been ignored when given.
One case that springs to mind, and should be recorded, occurred when the Member for Kalawana was unseated on a election petition. A bye-election had to be held, but meanwhile, in yet another of J R Jayewardene’s machinations, the original member had vacated his seat by being away without leave. He had then been reappointed to the vacancy under the constitutional provision Jayewardene had introduced to abolish bye-elections. The Speaker, ignoring the advice of the then Secretary General, ruled that Mr Pilapitiya, as the man was called, sat in Parliament by virtue of that appointment, and therefore the court ruling that he was unseated had no validity.
In order to accommodate both Mr Pilapitiya, and the bye-election the courts had ordered, government then introduced an amendment to the Constitution to allow two members for Kalawana. In those days Civil Rights was not fashionable, and there was hardly any public outcry, but the amendment did go before the Supreme Court, which ruled that it required not only a two/thirds majority of Parliament but also a referendum.
The government obviously had no desire to hold a referendum on such a subject, but they were caught in a bind, since the Speaker had ruled that Mr Pilapitiya was a member and the courts had ordered a bye-election. Fortunately the then Secretary General, when finally called on for advice, said that Mr Pilapitiya should resign.
President Jayewardene told him that he would then have to report a vacancy. The operative word in the Constitution was ‘shall’. The Secretary General, who was more sensible than the President, and had the courage to make this clear, said that the operative word was ‘vacancy’. Since, in his view, there was no vacancy, he would not report anything. He was not bound, he said, by the foolish actions of the Speaker. If this was challenged in the courts, his only request was that he be allowed to defend himself, without the Attorney General’s Department being involved.
I mention this story to explain why, when I wrote to the Speaker and the Whip to point out that the current problem should be resolved immediately, without seeking for additional officials or powers, I noted that I am now perhaps the individual in Parliament with the longest knowledge of Parliamentary traditions, and the greatest knowledge of constitutional practice. I would be happy to be corrected about this, but perhaps the Speaker understood this fact when he put me on the Committee to amend Standing Orders, which I had not requested.
Unfortunately, despite the idealism of those early days, when reform seemed on the cards, I suspect that now it is thought reform will be too complicated a business, and that nothing will be done. Only this can explain how swiftly everyone else in Parliament seems to have forgotten the universal agreement a couple of months ago that the amendment of Standing Orders had to be accomplished quickly.
This must be done, for I fear that the common sense that prevailed in the old days, when I used to admire Parliament and Parliamentarians, and attend debates for their content as well as style, has long faded away. We need to go back to simplicity and accountability, but that now needs to be entrenched in the system. The contrary approach, of appointing yet another official, who may end up as incompetent as the others, will not help the situation, and will perhaps even make things worse, because of possible conflicts of opinion. Rather, it would be better to lay down clearly the duties of Parliamentary Officials and ensure performance through more effective Standing Orders.