While I continue to believe improving consultation as well as efficiency at local level should be the most important priority for government, I will interrupt the discussion of appropriate mechanisms for this briefly, to look at a very interesting initiative that was publicized recently. This was the launch of a website called http://www.manthri.lk which grades Members of Parliament with regard to their performance in Parliament. This is an interesting effort which could be very useful to the country, but I felt that there had been a lack of intellectual rigour in preparing the website, and it could thus seem to be designed simply to promote particular politicians.

Prominence was given to Members of the Opposition, which is understandable since the system is based only on Hansard. Obviously there are more opportunities for Members of the Opposition to speak. The exception that proves the rule is that the only government Member within the first five was Dinesh Gunewardena. While he fulfills his functions admirably, the reason he is ranked so highly is that he spends much time on his feet only because other Ministers are not present to answer questions.

If rankings are to be made, then it would make sense to have three distinct categories,

a) Opposition members who have far more time allocated to them proportionately, given their paucity, than those on the Government side

b) Ministers who have to answer questions and obviously get more time in debates than backbenchers

c) Government backbenchers. I hasten to add, since on the common system of argument used in Sri Lanka, it will be assumed I am critical of the method because I come out badly, that in fact I am in the first half of all, and comparatively high amongst my peers. But this surprises me because, having been the first MP on the government side to ask a question and to move an Adjournment Motion in this Parliament, I rarely do this now because answers took so long to come and were not precise – while hardly anyone ever waits in Parliament for the Adjournment motions that take place after regular Parliamentary business.

I mentioned at the launch of the website that those responsible would have done much better to also take into account work in Committees. Their answer was that they could not access information about this, and it was argued that Standing Orders forbade dissemination of such.This is not the case, and I wrote to the Speaker to suggest that, since there was no clarity on the matter, he should specifically permit dissemination of the minutes of Consultative Committees. I also believe the Minutes of the PAC and COPE should be available to the public, but noted that this perhaps needed greater consideration.

The response I got was most peculiar. It referred to the Schedule to the Parliamentary Privileges Act which says publication of matters discussed in Committee is an offence until these had been reported to Parliament. This I knew, but I had been talking of the proceedings of committees which are not necessarily – or indeed ever – reported to Parliament. I noted that this provision was obviously important with regard to Select Committees, such as that on the Chief Justice. It could also be argued that it should apply to Committees such as the PAC and COPE which do produce reports. But since these are summaries, Parliament could allow publication of proceedings before the Report is issued – particularly since the Reports are so often delayed.

With regard to Consultative Committees however, which have no such outcome, unless publication of the minutes is permitted, there is no possibility of the public being aware of what goes on. This seemed to me wrong since Parliament owes it to the people it represents to promote transparency. The general principle with regard to information should be that this is readily available unless there is good reason to withhold it, rather than the opposite.

The reply I got was even more bizarre, namely that Consultative Committees did report to Parliament. I pointed out that there had been no such reports in my over 3 years in Parliament, and asked if I could be given one, if I were wrong. The response was the notice of a Report of an institution that comes under a particular Ministry, and hence its Consultative Committee, being placed before Parliament.

I was astounded, at the failure to understand the difference between the Report of another institution put before Parliament through a Consultative Committee, and the actual business of Consultative Committees. I have argued previously that this business needs to be more professional, in line with what happens in such Committees in other Parliaments, and the changes I have proposed to Standing Orders are intended to facilitate this. But as it is these Committees do a lot of business and, though much of it is parochial, it is unfair to my colleagues in Parliament who regularly bring up the business of their constituencies at Consultative Committees to ignore this in ranking their performance as Parliamentarians.

The silver lining in this cloud is that, once Committees have reported, their proceedings on this interpretation can be made public. In fact COPE officials had indicated this when I returned various papers I had gone through, and it was my excessive diffidence that led me to insist on them keeping what I thought required confidentiality, such as the report the former Chairman of the Securities Exchange, Tilak Karunaratne, had presented when he had hoped to reform that institution.

I realize now though that the offer I made to those who have established the website, to do a session for them on what a legislature should do, should also be extended to officials in Parliament. Seeing the situation now, I realize why so many of those who worked in Parliament in the past, as members or officials, speak so fondly of the days when my father was in charge of the administration there.

Friday, September 13, 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/features/yes-parliamentarians-have-perform