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Good Governance 9Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s defence of his taking a young man with him to New York was entertaining, but it was also very sad. Instead of concentrating on the problem of public funds being spent on private predilections, he engaged in a defence of what he evidently thought was a slur, if not on his character, on that of the young man in question. As a defence to charges he evidently took seriously, even if they had not been articulated, he claimed that the person in question was happily married and had a beautiful daughter.

This seems to imply that, had the youth not been married, or had he been married but childless, there would have been legitimate grounds for worry. But in thus diverting attention to what should be an irrelevancy, the Minister ignored the fundamental problem, which is that public money is spent on private convenience. This should not be acceptable, even when the person involved is a wife (whether with or without beautiful children).

Some years back I realized how absurd the situation was when I criticized the fact that a particular Minister had appointed his wife as his private secretary. The excuse offered was that he could then take her with him when he travelled, and that the cost to the country was less, since they could share a room. I do not suppose that was the reason for my predecessor as Minister of Higher Education appointing his wife to his private staff, or my erstwhile superior Kabir Hashim appointing his brother-in-law to his private staff.

 

Such individuals may be considered dependable – as was Kabir’s sister-in-law when he himself was non Cabinet Minister for Tertiary Education in 2002 (she was certainly honest, for she told me, when I complained about how the then UNP government was giving in to the LTTE at every turn, that they could not back out of the Ceasefire Agreement since that would be electorally disastrous). But the country should not have to pay for individuals a Minister finds dependable, unless they actually fulfil a task the country needs. And certainly the provision that a Minister can take one of his private staff with him when he travels is absurd, unless he can show that some public purpose is fulfilled.

During my brief career as a Minister, I was appalled at the perks that were available. I did not take all these up, and I believe the private staff I appointed did serve a public purpose. I had for instance, as Management assistants, two Tamil translators, in a situation in which the entire Ministry had only two people able to function in Tamil, and they at senior levels so they could not be used for day to day translations. As a result the Ministry website was functional in all three languages, which was I believe almost unique for any Ministry website. Read the rest of this entry »

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political principlesIn Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published some years back, the 3rd chapter (after chapters on the State and the Powers and Functions of Government) was about the Law. However I thought that I would leave that till later, and move on to Chapter 4 because of current concerns about changing the electoral system. This chapter explores systems of representation, but before we look into that, it makes sense to consider what me mean by Democracy, and how it has developed over the years.

The origins of democracy

The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, which mean ‘people’ and ‘power’. Thus, by democracy is meant a political system in which power belongs to the people. This is now generally accepted as the best system of government, inasmuch as it is the people who constitute the state, and therefore the government of a state should be in the hands of its people. However, numerous disagreements arise when we try to work out the best mechanisms through which people can exercise their power of government.

Clearly, all the people cannot rule together. Therefore, in a democracy, at any given period some of the people have to rule on behalf of the rest. But choosing some people as representatives of all the others has its problems.

Athens was the first state to have adopted the democratic system of government. They found that when there were elections the wealthy were chosen as leaders. They, therefore, instituted a system in which the representatives were chosen each year by drawing a lot from among all the citizens. This, they felt, led to a more truly representative government rather than the system of elections which gave advantages to the more influential members of society.

Athens functioned effectively for several years in the fifth century BC under this system. But a terrible defeat in 404, in the thirty-year war against the Spartans, led to the downfall of its political system. Some of its citizens felt that the defeat was due to their existing system of government. Since then this system of participatory democracy has never been put forward as a model.

In any case it would be difficult to put the system into practice in larger societies with vast differences among people. Athens was, after all, only a small city-state with a relatively educated population which prided itself on the capabilities of all its citizens. It also excluded women, slaves and foreigners dwelling in the city, from involvement in the democracy. So, the number of those from whom the choices were made was limited. Still, the experiment was interesting, and has since provided a mode of sorts for all democratic societies which aim to maximise participation of people in government.

The next important experiment in democracy was conducted by the Romans. It was a significant stage in the development of democracy, since final authority lay with the representatives elected by the people. Though systems of administration in other parts of the world at the time have been described as democratic, inasmuch as there were councils of elders in villagers or regular consultation of bodies of citizens, these were not institutionalised as ultimate authorities. Power, in the end, lay with kings, and it was from them that others—governors, advisers or elders—derived their authority. In Athens, however, as later in Rome, for nearly five hundred years from the fifth century BC onwards, power actually belonged to the people and to the representatives they chose. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

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