financial abuseI had intended to start this new series with expanded versions of the brief suggestions I had made during the election campaign. However, having been made a Minister, and found out the ridiculous privileges that Ministers are given, I thought I should start at the beginning and deal with the need for reforms at the very top.

The amount of waste on Ministers alone is appalling. Being a State Minister, with no Cabinet Minister, I had two predecessors, who between them had the use of 8 vehicles. They had 20+ staff in what is termed their private offices, one of these being the wife of the Minister. Five staff members of each private office were provided with vehicles and drivers. In addition the Minister had 8 substitute drivers.

All this nonsense springs from a circular issued by the Secretary to the President on May 14th 2010. I have drawn the attention of Karu Jayasuriya to this, and suggested that he amend it swiftly. He is Minister of Good Governance in addition to Public Administration, and a brief discussion we had after the swearing in of the new Cabinet suggested he is serious.

I was not surprised that he asked for my support in this, because what is clear is the need for better systems, based on clear principles. But I have realized over the years that few other politicians understand about systems and principles. This may help them to be successful politicians, but it means that the consequences of their success are generally disappointing and sometimes disastrous.

So in the last few years I have been disappointed at how few politicians cared about strengthening the Committee system in Parliament. Many of them indeed did not bother to attend, except only to raise one or two parochial points. Hardly ever were principles discussed.

This is clear from the Minutes of Committee meetings, even though these are cursory. Fortunately, following my agitation about the matter, these Minutes are now publicly available, something I am sorry to say no Parliamentarian previously had demanded. Interestingly, one consequence of the Minutes being published is that more people attend Committee meetings. The records of the first couple of months showed that very few people attended.

In this regard one of the most important commitments of the President’s manifesto is what is supposed to happen on January 20th, namely amendment of the Standing Orders of Parliament, to set up Oversight Committees. This is in line with what I had suggested way back in 2010, after consultation with the Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johanssen, who had been a good friend of my father. Unfortunately I was told to discuss these with the Leader of the House, but Mr Nimal Siripala de Silva was not interested at the time, and the papers I sent him were ignored.

Or, rather, they were not ignored, for the same ideas emerged in a proposal put forward by Karu Jayasuriya. I was told by someone in government that they may have been leaked by the office of the Leader of the House, but it is more likely that Karu, who is also deeply interested in reform and has good international contacts, had obtained the same documentation separately. Unfortunately his proposal was ignored for four long years.

These however should be combined with the Amendments I had proposed to Standing Orders, which the Speaker has ignored for well over a year. Under pressure I believe from Dinesh Gunawardena, the Chief Government Whip, who finally accepted the need for change, he arranged a meeting but it was on November 21st. I could not attend, since that was the day that Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidature, and it was clear that the few of us who were brave enough to come out first, Vasantha Senanayake and Duminda Dissanayake and M K D S Gunawardena and of course the principal agent of change Rajitha Senaratne, had all got to be there, since others proved more pusillanimous.

I have no regrets about being there, but I am sorry that I could not attend the meeting of the Standing Orders Committee the Speaker had finally convened after four long years. My point about the lack of interest of others was proved by the fact that in the interim no one else had asked him to have meetings. John Amaratunga was his usual charming self when I brought the matter up, and promised to push, but the matter always seemed to slip his mind. In the end I could not be angry, because I realized that all these individuals had come into Parliament after the 1978 Constitution destroyed the independence of Parliament. No one else had a feel for what Parliament could be, and I had been fortunate in attending Parliament in the sixties, in the grand old days of Dudley Senanayake and N M Perera and Felix Dias Bandaranaike and J R Jayewardene (a great Parliamentarian, though it was he who destroyed the system) and Colvin R de Silva and G G Ponnambalam and even the redoubtable R G Senanayake.

They understood the importance of systems and principles. They understood the importance of financial oversight of the Executive, with power to summon officials and investigate and condemn abuses. The President made it clear in his address after assuming duties that we should not just condemn those officials who succumbed to pressure, we must build up systems that will protect them, and encourage them to stand firm against politicians who pressurize them to misbehave. In addition to institutionalizing the independence of the Public Service Commission, we must also strengthen Parliamentarians apart from those in the Executive to run the committees that ensure accountability. Circulars such as the appalling one issued in May 2010 must be subject to the financial oversight of Parliament, and obviously those who benefit from such Circulars cannot be part of any Committee which is responsible for ensuring that the wealth of the public is not squandered on politicians.

Ceylon Today 20 Jan 2015 –