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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 »

Good Governance 8I 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. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29413330We have looked thus far at areas where government has a major role to play. In other areas it must recognize that people should by and large be left to function on their own. Yet in the modern world, given the scale of activity that occurs, there is need of some state intervention. This however should be seen as

 

Facilitation

 

Increasing involvement of government has become necessary for production and trade after the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the modern economic system. Before that, government had mainly to ensure physical and financial security. But even in early days there were requirements that could be met only by large-scale activity, and governmental involvement was essential for this.

Thus, going back to early Sri Lankan history, we find that the mark of a good ruler was promoting infrastructural development for irrigation purposes. In modern times, apart from irrigation, which is still of vital importance, research to promote productivity and preservation, communications networks to promote distribution, and credit schemes to promote investment, are essential for the support of agriculture.

Industrial development requires even greater infrastructural support, including utilities on a large scale and specialised training. Trade in both agriculture and industry should be facilitated through financial assistance as well as improved international communications, including telecommunications where rapid modernisation is vital.

Some of these areas overlap with those discussed earlier, but these activities are the responsibility of individuals and organisations. Government need not itself engage in such activities. In statist systems, economic activity was undertaken by government, often leading to monopolies. Experience has shown that this may hinder economic development. Without incentives for efficiency or penalties for incompetence, systems tend to collapse. Political interference often leads to overstaffing and indiscipline, which breed corruption and limit productivity.

 

The essential function of government in these areas is facilitation of activity by providing infrastructure and services needed for smooth functioning. In some instances, it could also include subsidies, but this should be carefully monitored lest they contribute to inefficiency. Nurturing a particular sector at times is a vital task of government but such nurturing should be to strengthen it to stand on its own over the course of time. If this is not feasible, continuing with subsidies is inappropriate in view of the wider interests of society.

 

To sum up, the facilitatory functions of government, which need careful planning and the setting of readily identifiable targets, require in a cabinet the following portfolios—minister of agriculture / irrigation, minister of industries and/or trade, minister of transport (including roads, railways, harbours and aviation), minister of communications / telecommunications and minister of power and energy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reform 9I come now to what seems a contentious issue, unnecessarily so. The manifesto on which the President won the election clearly pledged that ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’

This commitment, in the 100 day manifesto, was fleshed out in the commitment to a Compassionate Cogvernment and a Stable Country, as follows: The existing electoral system is a mainspring of corruption and violence. Candidates have to spend a colossal sum of money due to the preferential system. I will change this completely. I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own. The new electoral system will be a combination of the first-past-the post system and the proportional representation of defeated candidates. Since the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal, I would be able to get the agreement of all political parties represented in Parliament for the change. Further, wastage and clashes could be minimised since electoral campaigns would be limited to single electorates.’

This makes clear the urgent need for change. Sadly, the United National Party, having scented power, seems determined to continue with a system that practically demands corruption and violence. And while it will not openly promote corruption, the manner in which it is trying to grab vehicles from Ministries to give Members of Parliament shows that it will command resources without hesitation to promote its victory.

Fleets of vehicles naturally seem essential when candidates have to work in whole districts. So do millions of posters and hundreds of people to paste them. That in turn leads to violence that is more intra-party than between parties, since one’s immediate rivals are those in one’s own party. But presumably that matters nothing to the Prime Minister who belongs to the Divide and Rule Jayewardene philosophy in the UNP rather than the more inclusive Senanayake tradition.

The main argument against a First Past the Post system is that it distorts the will of the electorate. We saw this in both 1970 and in 1977, when governments had massive majorities in Parliament even though they had just bare majorities. But that is why the Maithripala Sirisena manifesto says very clearly that there would be mechanisms for plurality, and even more significantly, ‘the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal.’ Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29266949I make no apologies for coming back to the excellent paper prepared by Nagananda Kodituwakku about the measures needed to restore public confidence in the Justice system. Previously we looked at the systems that need to be put in place to ensure the swift dispensation of justice. Now I shall look at ways in which we can promote confidence in the personnel involved.

 

First of all Kodituwakku deals with the need to ensure integrity and independence in judges. This requires a

 

Transparent recruitment process to select judges to Superior Court System

He notes that now supreme court vacancies are filled at the pleasure of the President, which leads to a disregard for merit. We are well aware that this needs to be changed, and it is essential to have checks on the power of the President to make appointments at will. But we should not depend only on the predilections of others. It is necessary to have systems in place, guidelines that are clear and based on rational criteria, with a requirement that any appointing authority follow established guidelines in a transparent manner.

One point Kodituwakku raises, which had not occurred to me before, is that it is a mistake to fill most vacancies with officers from the Attorney General’s Department. He notes that in the United Kingdom from where we claim to have derived out traditions, ‘not a single judge to the Judiciary is appointed from the Crown Prosecution Service headed by the Attorney General of the UK.’ He suggest instead that ‘Priority should be given to eminent career judges over other applicants. Public officers serving in the AG’s Department and the members in the private bar should be afforded an equal opportunity to submit their application for vacancies. But no preferential treatment whatsoever shall be afforded to the lawyers serving in the Attorney General’s Department over the other applicants. This merit-based system shall be implemented to the appointments to the lower Courts as well.’

 

Another vital factor Kodituwakku notes is that there should be

No inducements with gratifications after retirement

The system of giving appointments after retirement should stop. This should not preclude work in the private sector, and short term assignments such as special inquiries should be possible. But judges must accept that they should not be appointed to any salaried position in government after retirement. As he puts it, the prevalent practice ‘conveys a wrong message that those who are inclined towards the executive would get a preferential treatment over others after their retirement. This naturally affects the independence of the Judiciary.’

In addition to his strictures on the judiciary, Kodituwakku also notes the need to restore public confidence in lawyers. He begins with the Attorney General’s Department, the lawyers who represent the public as a whole. They prosecute in criminal cases, and appear for government and government departments, which means they appear for the people. Read the rest of this entry »

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… an inflated idea of its own importance

In addition to security considerations, there are several areas in which government is deeply involved. But we should not take what government does for granted. There is a natural tendency for any institution to have an inflated idea of its own importance, and this means that it will tend to take on more and more responsibilities. A regular consequence of this is that it becomes inefficient.

It is therefore important that those exercising particular responsibilities give careful consideration as to their core functions. They should know what it is they must do. Any additional services they can provide might be useful, but they should also make sure that they do not create a culture of dependency, which could inhibit development. The statism that dominated many societies in the last century often led to stagnation. Any government therefore must bear in mind the need to leave room for individual initiatives that would also help with satisfying social needs.

In particular ,when allocating responsibility for the provision of services governments must take care to discourage populism. Ministers responsible for services should be able to conceptualize. They must work on improving service delivery whilst encouraging alternatives that will help to raise standards and improve the service.  I therefore present here the next section of the Second Chapter of ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’, which scrutinizes what government should do, and why, with regard to service provision –

 

Services

qrcode.29262648Before what we may term the Modern Period, beginning from about the eighteenth century, security and justice were seen as the primary duties of a government. While governments performed various other functions these were largely as a matter of personal commitment by particular rulers, or in times of emergency. They were not seen as central to the duties of a ruler.

With the development of modern society, however, the role of government changed. This can be seen most clearly with regard to health care, which is now seen as one of the most important functions of government. In the early days, some kings distinguished themselves by building hospitals, the management of which was often handed over to independent institutions such as religious bodies. But the responsibility was not usually considered that of the government itself.

With industrialisation and rapid urbanisation, health became a more central concern. Epidemics had more disastrous consequences for the society, and not only cure but also prevention became an urgent necessity. With the development of new techniques in health care that required extensive capital investment, the establishment of government hospitals became necessary. So health became a vital function of government. The minister of health has a crucial role to play in any government of today. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2015
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