downloadSeveral papers, though interestingly enough not all, carried accounts last week of the failure of Vasantha Senanayake to propose the Constitutional Amendment that stood in his name on the Order Paper of Parliament on September 25th. It was not however registered that he had not withdrawn the motion, which was to introduce statutory limitations on numbers in the Cabinet. He merely postponed it, while meanwhile requesting government to set up a Committee to go into that and other constitutional amendments he had proposed.

It seemed to me a pity that he had not gone ahead with the motion, not least because of the enthusiasm with which government members had greeted it on the day. One government MP came up to congratulate him, and was deeply disappointed to be told that he would not be proposing it that day. Even more surprisingly, a Cabinet Minister, albeit a particularly honest and honourable one, told me it was a very good idea. And the enthusiasm of the opposition also took the form of recognition of their own inadequacies, for Ravi Karunanayake, who had proposed something of the sort through a Private Members Motion, granted that it was much more effective to put forward a Bill.

Ravi indeed has contributed to the contumely in which Private Members Motions are held, by proposing hundreds of varying importance, which has contributed to Fridays becoming a day to avoid Parliament. And it is a mark of the lack of awareness about Parliamentary practice in those who pass for senior Parliamentarians that it was a first time member who registered the importance of putting forward a Bill, instead of adding through a Motion to the tedium of Fridays. That day in Parliament is now largely the preserve of Ravi and of his great rival Buddhika Pathirana, along with legions of the dead (obituaries being the other main subject of discussion on Fridays, apart from the motions of the dynamic duo).

The assumption in the press was that Vasantha had been pressed by the UPFA leadership into withdrawing the motion. This had indeed happened earlier, for he had put forward the Bill some months ago, but on that occasion the President had spoken to him and, in talking about his bright future, persuaded him not to put it on the agenda. I suppose it is because I do not have a future that I would have sought some sort of commitment from His Excellency to encourage debate and discussion on the matter, but I can understand someone of Vasantha’s age believing that that would not be the end of the matter.

But the President has entrusted questions of structural reform to Basil, who has managed in four years only to amend the elections system for local government, and that in a manner that led to the Bill being withdrawn, and then passed with promises of immediate amendment, and now more amendments in a different area. He evinces no urgency with regard to structural reforms, despite the crying need to clarify the powers and responsibilities of local agencies, given social changes since the relevant acts were passed. A new act has been drafted, but like so many positive initiatives of this government (including  S B Dissanayake’s laudable effort to reform the university system) it lies forgotten. Instead, priority is given only to Bills such as Divineguma which enhance the power of those who already have excessive power. The President’s idea of empowering the people is far from the thoughts of those who now make decisions on his behalf.

In such a context, there is no room for productive discussions about reforms. Basil indeed hardly bothers to attend meetings of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Reforms, which has failed signally in its task. And while government bleats about the TNA refusing to attend (scarcely surprising, given that government packed the committee with very few positive elements, omitting party leaders with pluralistic perspectives), there has been no effort to produce an interim report on the basis of the submissions made to the Committee.

Vasantha waited several months and then wrote to the party leadership, but of course he has had no response. Clearly there is no space for those concerned about policies and principles. Meanwhile those who engage in threats and pleas about their electoral prowess are rewarded with Ministerial positions, with no question of assessing possible contributions to the country – so that we find the preposterous situation of a Minister having no idea that he would be given a Deputy. The Executive is seen then as a parking lot for vehicles needing attention, but where they will get to is of no consequence.

It was sensible then of Vasantha to have his Bill placed on the Order Paper. The public should know that there are a few Members of Parliament who are bothered not only about their own futures, but also the future of the country. Earlier I had thought that this Bill would have the support of everyone in the country except those now holding ministerial office and those aspiring to it. However I am heartened by the splendid reaction of a Cabinet Minister who, despite his decency, would probably not be amongst the 30 the Amendment specifies. That suggests that there are still a few individuals in the Cabinet who think beyond their own positions and privileges.

The significant feature of many of the reforms Vasantha has proposed is that their benefits are beyond question. Instead of concentrating on controversial questions such as abolishing the Executive Presidency, they concentrate the mind on the purposes of public office. An executive is meant to work for the country, so it makes no sense that spheres of action should be carvd up and multiplied, as opposed to being identified in terms of practical needs. A limited number of Ministries, with specific responsibilities based on coherent functions, is what a country needs.

Recently, at the Committee on Public Enterprises, when I suggested that there was need of consultation with regard to agriculture, a Minister told me that, since several Ministries were concerned, it was impossible for them to work together as I had suggested at Divisional Level. Meanwhile the Acting Secretary to the Ministry told me that he had gathered that the Secretary to the President had set up a coordinating committee of secretaries to all Ministries concerned with agriculture.

Knowing however how busy Lalith Weeratunge is, and also that there are no systems in place to ensure that records are maintained and progress monitored, I thought that a more systematic structure was needed. So I wrote to him, with regard to the coordinating mechanism for the agriculture sector that he had set up, to say that ‘Whilst I appreciate your understanding of the need for this, it must be too much for you given your other responsibilities, and I would have thought the need of the moment was to develop institutional mechanisms. I assume something of the sort was intended when Senior Ministries were set up, but since that was done without proper planning or explanation, most Ministers have not worked to the best of their abilities, such as they are.

I hope you will rethink structures and systems carefully over the next few weeks. I feel even more sorry now that the paper ……….. prepared on enhancing the role of the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation (before the election of 2010) was not taken seriously. Given the way government now functions, I assume that fear of such monitoring led to the abolishing of that Ministry, a blunder on par with the abolishing of a Ministry for Human Rights, and allowing the Legal Draughtsman’s Department to function without proper accountability mechanisms.’

Though I worry sometimes about Lalith’s efficiency, given the amount of work thrust upon him, I still think he is the best person to develop better administrative structures, and certainly the only person close to the President who does not have an agenda of his own or personal ambitions and desires. Given the neuroses amongst decision makers about other politicians, I can see that Vasantha’s letters to the SLFP leadership will get no response. But given his graciousness in postponing the Bill, I hope government will not just ignore him now, but will accede to his request to set in place a process of consultation.

For this purpose Mr Weeratunge should ask to see Vasantha along with other members of the Young Parliamentarians Leadership Forum, which he has led effectively over the last couple of years. His equivalent on the UNP side was Harin Fernando, whom I was particularly impressed with when, in Vasantha’s absence overseas, he guided the statement issued with regard to the incidents at Aluthgama.

The UNP has recognized Harin’s leadership potential, and his willingness to take a risk has been amply rewarded. It seems to me that the President is as shrewd in this regard as Ranil Wickremesinghe was, in that he selected Dayasiri Jayasekera to be Chief Minister of Wayamba, and that gamble too paid off. Perhaps he had intended something of the sort in putting Shasheendra Rajapaksa forward initially for Uva, but he must recognize, given the odium felt by the country towards his aged relatives, that the youngster, despite his promise, is tainted by perceptions of nepotism. So his relative youth is forgotten in comparison with the bloodline.

But youth is the key. Behind Vasantha there are plenty of young people. Lalith should engage with them positively, before their idealism is obliterated by the horrors of the system an older generation of rent seekers seems determined to perpetuate.

Ceylon Today 7  October 2014

Presidency Under Threat - 20 (2)