Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
As Chief Guest at the inaugural meeting of
The Institute of Geology Sri Lanka
2nd June 2014

I am honoured to have been invited today to speak at this inaugural meeting, not least because, as you are all well aware, Geology is not a subject about which I know anything. It is the more kind of you therefore to have asked me, just because I helped to steer the bill to establish the Institute through Parliament. But indeed I should thank you for having asked me to propose the Bill, because I suspect it will be my only achievement in the Chamber as a Member of Parliament.

I should note, in case I sound hopeless, that I believe my work in Committees has been innovative and seminally useful. I am also proud to have been the first member on the Government side to ask questions and propose Adjournment motions. But these are hollow achievements, given that questions are answered late if ever, and hardly anyone is present when Adjournment Motions are discussed. I still live in hope though that my Amendments to the Standing Orders, which would if accepted enhance the role of Parliament, will be put to the House. But a combination of intransigence on the part of Government and lethargy on the part of the Opposition, which prefers to complain rather than take appropriate action, will probably kill that too.

The problem, I should note, in the context of this inaugural meeting, is that there is no Professionalism with regard to the job of being a Member of Parliament. It would be absolutely unthinkable for Parliamentarians to come together to ‘promote the acquisition, dissemination and exchange of knowledge’about Parliaments, or to ‘assess the eligibility of candidates for admission to the various grades’ of Parliamentarians. We do not think about national policies nor do we promote, maintain and uphold professional and ethical principles and standards on relevant matters.

Why has this happened? One reason is I think a general one, that applies to other Parliaments round the world. This is what Paul Johnson has described as the advent of the Professional Politician. When the Westminster model was developing, Parliamentarians were individuals distinguished in other areas who entered Parliament to engage in discussion and debate on laws and the financing of the executive. They had other jobs to do, and needed to develop expertise and qualifications with regard to their main job or vocation. Such Professionalism helped them in their duties as Parliamentarians, especially with regard to oversight, which is a vital function of Parliamentarians, though this is not known by the majority of our Parliamentarians, who rarely come to Committee meetings.

At the beginning the executive authority was the King. When the King ceased to be powerful, it was a Prime Minister appointed by the King, who then selected other Ministers to help him to run the country. Then, as the party system developed, governments were drawn up strictly on party lines, and then Members of Parliament began to dream of being Ministers. Other jobs or vocations became less important, but there was no training or expertise that seemed necessary to become a Professional Politician.

In Sri Lanka the situation has got worse because of our strange electoral system. In the old days, you had to apply for nomination for a particular seat, and parties would check on your eligibility. But now that lists are drawn up for whole Districts, and individual responsibilities are less important than general vote getting ability, there is no professional criterion. Family members have a distinct advantage because of name recognition and, though I should note that many children of politicians now in Parliament have good academic qualifications, there are others who have none and do not see these as necessary.

In part because of the increasing inefficiency of this system, the reactive nature of the government he replaced, J R Jayewardene introduced a Presidential system, when he won election by a landslide, and was able to do whatever he wanted. But, fatally, in order to enhance his own power, he did not introduce the separation of powers that is the hallmark of every other Presidential system in the world. So he kept the Cabinet in Parliament, which has led to the farce we now have, of a massive Cabinet and no selection of personnel based on appropriate qualifications.

In normal Executive Presidential systems, there is professionalization of the Executive, with the President able to choose the most suitable person for any position. But here the President has to select from a very limited group, 225 persons, who have made themselves eligible by getting into Parliament on a system that is based on name recognition rather than any system of qualifications or merit. And so perhaps the most able and experienced man in Parliament, having just managed to get into Parliament as the last on the Kandy list, is not a Minister – though in the most telling example of contempt for the Westminster system, he is both a Senior Minister and a Junior Minister.

I am not sure that we can go on much longer with this lack of professionalism. But while this continues, the role of real professionals is all the more important. And in the present situation in the country, it is salutary that you Geologists have got together. In particular I hope that you will proactively provide counselling services to public and private institutions, with regard to your subject.

Last week, in Mullaitivu, I came across an example of an area where I think advice is urgently needed. This related to extraction of sand for building purposes, when I got complaints about restrictions on the transport of sand. Divisional Secretaries have authority from the Geological Survey to permit a limited amount of sand to be used, and this seems inadequate for the building needs of the area. The Police however told me that they have to deal also with sand being taken away for other purposes, to do with the needs, not of new householders, but of commercial establishments.

Meanwhile the issue was also raised at the Government Parliamentary Group meeting, where some of my colleagues wanted indulgence for the transport of sand on a larger scale than is now permitted. This had also been discussed some months back, but that discussion had been forgotten, and the issue was raised again. Meanwhile we had also raised the issue in COPE, and received an account of a Court decision in this regard – where interestingly the current Chief Justice had appeared for the petitioners, I think in a commercial capacity – and in fact I sent this account to His Excellency so that we might have some final decisions on the matter, instead of it being constantly canvassed with different perspectives at different places.

The point I am trying to make is that this is not an issue on which Parliamentarians can take decisions without expert advice. It is also not an area in which the Executive as constituted at present can decide, because the expertise that is available can be trumped by political considerations. I should add that there are other considerations too, because the Hon Minister of Transport referred to the damage that would be caused to roads by the excessive transport of heavy loads, and this matter came up too at the Divisional Secretariat in Mullaitivu, where villagers said the transport of sand was damaging rural roads.

It is clear then that we need professional advice from experts in these areas. At present we do not have adequate mechanisms to both obtain advice and abide by that advice in the face of conflicting claims. To overcome such problems we need better awareness programmes, we need to educate the public on the need for professional decision making and implementation, and we need also to inform our politicians who make decisions about the importance of considering problems holistically, rather than in terms of immediately satisfying what seems the most influential constituency.
I should be doubly proud therefore of the opportunity you gave me to help institutionalize your society. I was able to do one of the jobs for which I am in Parliament, and I was also able to contribute to what I hope will be greater input by professionals on matters affecting the country as a whole.

Governance requires moving beyond politics, and that requires knowledge as well as wider consultation. The Institute of Geology will I hope fulfil its objectives in the light of the growing need amongst decision makers in Sri Lanka for knowledge as well as greater understanding of different relevant perspectives.