One of the biggest problems Sri Lanka faces is the absence of consultation between political parties. The manner in which the Reform Agenda of the President was nearly destroyed because of a failure to see it as a national need is typical of what is wrong. The Prime Minister decided that this was an enterprise for which the UNP had to get the credit, and accordingly he worked only with his chosen acolytes. Though lip service was paid to consultation, through what was termed the National Executive Council, this was set up in a very haphazard fashion, and had no plan of work, nor regular meetings.
So the 19th Amendment emerged, like Athene from the head of Zeus, from the team that Ranil had asked as early as November to prepare a Bill to transfer power from the President to the Prime Minister. Jayampathy Wickremaratne revealed this early in our discussions about the manifesto, and though he took the point that publication of such a Bill during the campaign would play straight into Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hands, he did not accept the further point that such a procedure would be unfair. It was wrong to ask the people to vote for one person in order to give power to another, but Jayampathy was so enamoured by then of the Wickremesinghe agenda, that he simply bided his time and then produced his draft.
The result was that what should have been a process conducted with goodwill on all sides turned acrimonious. Other aspects of the manifesto that seemed equally important to other parties were ignored. Though perhaps Ranil Wickremesinghe was only concerned with what was of immediate importance to him, and thought other things could be dealt with later, the impression he created was that he was simply not interested in strengthening Parliament (through amending the Standing Orders) or introducing a Code of Conduct, or Electoral Reform.
Perhaps he cannot be blamed, given the confrontational view of politics that has developed in the last half century and more. The problem I think started with the manner in which Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was defeated in 1964, which involved bribery on a scale that would now seem ludicrous. But even so, the Parliament elected in 1965 seemed remarkably civilized, and legislation did seem to involve consultation and consensus. Indeed, though I still regret the manner in which the opposition campaigned against Dudley Senanayake’s attempt to introduce District Councils, that measure lost largely because of the internal opposition to devolution in his party.
The 1970 election however put paid to hopes of consensus building. Perhaps traumatized by the 1971 insurrection, the United Front government pushed through its new constitution without sufficient consultation. It did however go through the motions, of setting up a Constituent Assembly, but internal problems in the UNP prevented a principled response, which might have led to more productive discussion. In turn, in 1978, helped by the rout of the SLFP, J R Jayewardene virtually ramrodded his new constitution through, ignoring the very sensible strictures of experts such as N M Perera.
The massive majority he enjoyed, and the carrots he provided his MPs with, led to a breakdown in the Committee system. I was astonished, when I got into Parliament, to find that Committees did not meet regularly, and when they did, they took no notice of what they were supposed to discuss according to the Standing Orders. The business they transacted was about the particular problems of individual MPs. The idea that they should consider policy and examine expenditure seemed incomprehensible to my colleagues. One could not however blame them, since the electoral system J R had instituted meant that they had to devote all their energies to popularizing themselves.
One consequence of this is that opposition MPs made no effort to find out about government policies, and promote those that seemed productive, whilst reserving their criticism for what was obviously for political advantage. This also meant that they could not develop familiarity with government officials, assess those who were efficient and effective, so that they could make use of them when they themselves were in positions of authority. And because we have this crazy system, introduced by the statist regime of the early seventies, that changes secretaries when governments change, MPs did not develop the idea of working with the Administrative Service, since that would obviously be subject, if there were a change of government, to political inuts.
When I suggested that we have Permanent Secretaries, one argument against this was that Ministers should have people they could work with. But in reality Ministers do not get to choose, they are given whoever the decision makers promote. Ranil did in 2001 have a Committee, and this time too there was one into which Chandrika too put her people, but this time round there was even less familiarity with those who had been working effectively in recent years. So it was a mixture of prejudice and familiarity that won the day, with no attempt at ensuring continuity. When it was realized that this was essential, former Secretaries were to be brought in as Advisers, which creates yet another layer of government, whereas we should have tried to develop a streamlined system.
I am not sure that the system can be rescued, not at least until we have a better electoral system in place and parties learn to select candidates in terms of their potential input as members of the Legislature and also the Executive, rather than simply in terms of their capacity to win votes. But we also need a think tank to work out how to get the best out of the administrative service. The new Audit Act enjoins the Audit Commission to ‘introduce schemes to enhance the quality of the staff’, but the Public Service Commission has no such responsibilities. Yet ensuring better systems of administration is at least as important as ensuring financial probity, since there is no point in putting in place proper financial systems if the work is not productive.
A golden opportunity has been missed I think for a comprehensive package of reforms that would have created a more responsible government in the fullest sense of the word. For this purpose we must ensure regular discussion between both decision makers and those who have to sit in judgment on the decisions that are made. Setting up a committee system, with primacy given to the opposition, is vital and this has been canvassed in the past. But the manner in which the current government has ignored this does not bode well for the future.