One of the saddest aspects of the political culture we have developed over the years is the total rejection of continuity, a simple necessity if a country is to move forward smoothly. The present government seems to have rejected this principle completely, in the manner in which it has replaced personnel wholesale. Though it has shown some understanding of the need for experience, it has displayed this by calling back into harness ancient figures from the past.
Mr Paskaralingam being brought back as an Adviser is perhaps the most ludicrous example of this, though he was an efficient Secretary, in Education in the seventies and then to Prime Minister and then President Premadasa in the eighties. But he will be 80 next year and, though he had some experience of Sri Lanka the last time Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister, he is no longer in a position to know how and through whom to make things move. Then Mr Bradman Weerakoon, who is 84, is an adviser to the Minister of Resettlement, a field in which perhaps he is thought to have experience. He was Commissioner General for Essential Services for a year after the ethnic riots of 1983, before heading back to London.
Comparatively younger, being only in his mid-seventies, is Wickrema Weerasooria who, in addition to advising the President on Banking and Finance and Racial Harmony and Media Freedom, is now also a member of the University Grants Commission. Unlike the other two, he was not a career Civil Servant, but a political appointee in the Jayewardene administration. He served as Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation until 1986, but presumably did not contribute to the increasing problems with regard to Racial Harmony and Media Freedom in those days. He was recycled during the last Wicrkemesinghe Administration, to work with Kabir Hashim’s Ministry of Tertiary Education and Training as well as the Central Bank.
It is perhaps understandable though that this represents continuity for a Wickremesinghe administration. Sadly there was no effort to engage with leading figures in the last administration, many of whom are capable Civil Servants who only need liberation from the politicized approach of several administrations. That has to be done through structural reforms.
Though the Rajapaksa government took this politicization to unparalleled heights, it has been going on for ages. The Jayewardene government began the process of giving enormous powers to political appointees and advisers, Weerasooria, Rakhita Wickramanayake at Air Lanka, Stanley Kalpage at the UGC, Nimal Karunatilleke at the SLBC, and of course Ravi Jayawardene, who set up the Special Task Force. Bu, the culture had been sanctified as it were by the previous government, which had abolished the concept of Permanent Secretaries and handed over those appointments to the Cabinet.
One of the saddest aspects of the proposed 19th Amendment is that it continues to hold the Public Service firmly under the control of politicians. Secretaries to Ministries are to be appointed by the President, which means chosen by the Prime Minister given that the President shall always act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Then the pernicious provision that they cease to hold office when there is a change in government is kept on.
None of this seems to have been noticed in the discussions on the proposed amendment that have taken place. The issue of what precisely is meant by reducing the excessive powers of the Presidency has been subsumed into the simple question of getting rid of the Presidency and replacing it with a Prime Minister with similar powers. What we need instead is the strengthening of the other institutions that act as a check on the overwhelming power of the Executive.
These institutions are Parliament, the Judiciary, the Public Service and, in my view, the Media too. The amendments to Standing Orders that were approved at the Standing Order Committee on February 20th go a long way towards strengthening the oversight powers of Parliament, but typically we have not met since then. After one more meeting we can surely put the amendments to Parliament. Once they are passed, Members of Parliament will have much more control over the executive, while there will be much more transparency so that the public can know about financial management of what is the public wealth.
With regard to the Public Service, a few simple amendments will reduce the authority of politicians. While politicians must have the power to make policy, and ensure its implementation, all this must be done in terms of the Constitution, and systems that ensure justice and transparency. Psrotecting those is the duty of Public Servants, and for them to perform this function effectively, they must have security of tenure, and safeguards against arbitrary appointments by politicians.
In the suggestions I prepared for Rev Sobitha to reduce executive power, I made a couple of very simple suggestions. One was to amend Section 52 of the Constitution to give the appointment of Secretaries to Ministries to the Public Services Commission rather than to the President. The second was to delete the provision that has them vacate their positions when the Cabinet is dissolved.
This second provision is vital, for the Public Service must be seen as that, not the Servants of a particular government in power at any particular time. They too must understand – as indeed many of them do – that they must serve whatever government has been elected by the people. Making them lose their positions when there is a new government is tantamount to forcing them to see themselves as servants of the government in power.
The 1970 government made the change because they felt the Public Service was old fashioned and would not support their radical initiatives. I do not think this assumption was correct, because right through our history and that of other countries, the Public Service has managed to work in accordance with policies of elected governments. But of course if any particular Public Servant seems recalcitrant, or is unwilling to adjust, it is open to Ministers to request their resignations (or suggest transfers). If this does not resolve the problem, the Minister may explain the situation in writing to the Public Service Commission, which can then take appropriate action.
Finally, I have in article 55 made suggestions as to the level to which the Public Service Commission should exercise authority, in proposing that ‘The appointment of public offices of Additional Secretary rank or District Secretary rank of above or Head of Department is vested in the Public Service Commission. The appointment of public officers below such rank shall be the responsibility of the Secretary to the relevant Ministry.’ Elmore Perera, with whom I discussed this, thought Assistant Secretaries should also be the responsibility of the PSC, and that seems to me reasonable, so long as we do not overburden them too much, and allow Secretaries the possibility of having people whom they can work with effectively. But, the bottom line should be that they see themselves as professionals, with a vocation, not the instruments of politicians.