I have been arguing for the last few months that the basic principle this government was elected to fulfil, namely reducing the power of an over mighty executive, requires the establishment of alternative centres of power. The Wickremesinghe recipe of transferring all power to the Prime Minister, by giving the latter freedom of action and placing the President firmly under his control, is authoritarianism of an even more insidious sort.
But in the discussions I see in the media, there is little attention to those alternative centres of power. The failure to amend Standing Orders so as to strengthen Parliament, and give due recognition to the Opposition, has not been discussed anywhere. The continuing suppression of the Public Service, by handing over the appointment of the Accounting Officers of all Ministries wholly to the Executive, has hardly been noticed. The fact that Secretaries have to see themselves as the chosen instruments of their Ministers, or of the political executive authority has not been challenged.
With regard to the Judiciary, simply getting rid of Mohan Pieris seems to be thought enough to guarantee an effective judiciary. No one seems to be interested in correcting the flawed impeachment procedure that led to Shirani Bandaranayake being accused and judged by the same group of people. And no one seems to be interested in ensuring that the judicial process is simplified and expedited, that judges follow rules as to remanding and sentencing, that legislation is prepared in a fashion that makes it readily understandable by the people whom it affects.
I have long realized that many of those who claim to want good governance are concerned mainly with criticizing the abuses of those they dislike, and putting in place alternatives that deal with the excesses of particular individuals. The need to have a principled approach to the problems that have beset us over the last few decades is understood only be a few individuals such as Rev Sobitha and Elmore Perera, and they seem to have been comprehensively sidelined in the last few months.
But we cannot rely on individuals. What we need is a strengthening also of the Fourth Estate the media. This is a pity, because many of the youngsters who work in newspapers and radio and television are bright and also eager to learn. When I had my little problem with Kabir Hashim, I was told that I should not talk to the media because they would misrepresent me, but I ignored this advice because I felt that transparency demanded that those in public life make themselves available to questioning about their work. This is the other side of the coin from the need to be available to those who have problems in the field in which we exercise authority. That is why I, or the excellent staff I had put together (to the joy of the Secretary who wanted to keep them on after I had left) saw everyone who came in to the Ministry and answered all letters on the day we got them.
With regard to the media, of course there was distortion occasionally, but this was rarely deliberate. What was deliberate was on the part of the various websites and from writers with very distinct political perspectives. The denigration culminated in the splendid assertion that I must have been paid a lot by Mahinda Rajapaksa – just as three months earlier his former Media Spokesman claimed I must have got a lot of money to support Maithripala Sirisena.
What was sad though was that the many youngsters who interviewed me had had no training in how to look at political trends. They were interested in individuals, but it had never occurred to them to analyse what was going on in government. In a country where journalism is taught professionally, those specializing in political commentary would for instance have studied the manifesto and tried to understand why it was not being fulfilled.
They should have started for instance with the Cabinet as it was originally constituted, wondering why there was no logical basis to the manner in which portfolios had been set up. That would have given them a clue as to the basis on which the government was operating. Then they should be tracking the changes in portfolios, not just the sudden appointment of Cabinet Ministers for everything, but also the changes in functions, with the CWE and the Consumer Affairs Authority being taken away from Food Security and handed over to Trade and Industry, under the aegis of Rishard Bathiudeen. Again, not just a political commentator, but those interested in education should wonder why the National Education Commission seems to have been moved from the Ministry of Education.
Underlying this is the lack of understanding of basic political principles. I used to include some basic political philosophy in the Core Course at Sabaragamuwa as also at the Military Academy at Diyatalawa where I coordinated the degree programme for over seven years. The complete ignorance of how the country was run, even though students were supposed to have done several years of social studies, made me realize how the basic general knowledge we need as citizens is not targeted in our school syllabuses. Total confusion obtains between for instance Ministers and Members of Parliament, there is no awareness of the recent political history of the country, for instance the traumas of 1983 and the two JVP insurrections, there is little understanding of modern economic theories, and students still seem stuck in total reliance on the nanny state.
I have to confess that recently I came across a comment by a Victorian writer on Sri Lanka who claimed that “But the fact that our lack of awareness may not be new is no reason to be complacent. And it is particularly important that journalists, who have a crucial role to play in guarding the citizens against an overmighty state, have the knowledge and understanding to assess critically what is going on.” Thus far we have not really develop an Institute for Journalists which will inculcate basic awareness. But having been asked by several to help them in rousing consciousness, I can only hope that the Media Ministry and the Press Institute will combine to develop a programme to develop knowledge, skills and also a questioning attitude.