Many allegations are now being traded with regard to corruption, but sadly there is no discussion about measures to get over the problem. We seem more inclined to concentrate on allegations for political purposes rather than institutionalizing preventive measures, remedial measures and also measures that will give early warning.
I am very sorry about this since one of the reasons for my leaving the last government was perceptions of increasing corruption. Though now I realize that this government too is engaged in corrupt deals, this was not a reason for my resignation from the Ministry, nor yet for my crossing over. But what seemed the institutionalization of nepotism was a reason, the requirement that jobs and perks be provided for one’s supporters, as exemplified by the takeover of Ministry vehicles by Kabir Hashim’s henchmen after I had left.
Measures to prevent all this could easily have been taken as soon as the new government was set up. I had high hopes because the responsibility for reform to promote Democratic Governance, by which I thought Good Governance was also meant, had been entrusted to Karu Jayasuriya. I thought he was sincere, and he certainly seemed so at the start, but it was soon clear that his heart was not in it.
Whether he felt he was not trusted, or whether he too thought it necessary to concentrate on the forthcoming election, and therefore provide his party people with state resources for the purpose I do not know. But he did nothing about the suggestions I sent, except that with his usual politeness he acknowledged them, while noting that it was difficult to change the political culture.
One simple measure he could easily have adopted was to bring in regulations to give the public ready access to the Assets Declarations of those who have decision making powers over public finances. I have long advocated that the Assets Declarations of Members of Parliament should be freely available to the people. Indeed this is now the case in theory, but the process of obtaining the Declarations is complicated, and the contents cannot then be publicized. So discussion of any contrast between Assets at the time of first making a declaration and Assets after some years in public positions is not permitted.
The case is very different in other countries. After months of trying to persuade the Speaker to summon the Committee on Standing Orders, I found a glimmer of enthusiasm some weeks back, when he told me to have a look at the New Zealand Standing Orders which he had evidently studied. He seemed to find it a model, and it is certainly put in simple language, with clear purposes indicated.
With regard to Assets Declarations, it provides for a Registrar in Parliament to prepare a schedule for public information of the Assets of Members of Parliament. This the public can find out who has not made any declaration, and can also have a fair idea of those who are – in the splendid Thai term – unusually rich.
At the last meeting of the Standing Order Committee, held just a couple of days before Parliament was dissolved, the Speaker was very positive about this approach. Unfortunately the Committee was only barely quorate, with no one from the government present – which made it clear that the pledge in the President’s manifesto to amend Standing Orders meant nothing to the UNP. The Leader of the Opposition was however present, and agreed that what had been decided at the previous meeting, in February, should be presented to Parliament in the form of a report. This I had hoped would lead to ratification, but unfortunately with the dissolution of Parliament, the whole process will have to be restarted in September – if, that is, anyone is interested.
This was the first time, I should note, that the question of Assets came within the purview of the Standing Orders Committee. Our current Standing Orders say nothing about this, but after seeing the New Zealand document I had suggested that such questions pertaining to ethics also be incorporated.
I was the more concerned about this since it was also clear that the government had no intention of moving on the Code of Conduct, which was yet another pledge for early fulfilment (February 2nd was the date for it to ‘be introduced legally for all representatives of the people.’) Though Rajitha Senaratne claimed, after I had raised the issue, that there was continuing interest in it and the Code would soon be introduced, it was obviously not a priority. The draft was circulated to a few people, but at this stage the immensely capable Parliament staff found a Code prepared under President Premadasa in the early nineties, and brought it to the Standing Order Committee. This seemed to the Speaker too to be a much more user friendly document, and he said he would order it to be reprinted and circulated to members.
I hope whoever is Speaker takes this matter up, because such a Code should be introduced by Parliament, not the Executive. My already high opinion of President Premadasa went up when I saw what he had produced, but in terms of the systems that should exist in a Parliamentary democracy, such a Code should be the business, and the responsibility, of Parliament.
That Code too however did not talk about making Assets Declarations public. I suspect that sort of commitment to the Right to Information was not common anywhere in those days, and it is only in the last couple of decades that the world has recognized the importance of people’s participation in governance. In the end, even the most idealistic politicians – as we can see with President Sirisena faced with the Central Bank Bond Scam and being driven to dissolve Parliament before the COPE Report was presented – are subject to pressures which are difficult to withstand. It is only the people, volatile as they are, who can be trusted to safeguard the national interest, for it is their interest.
So let me repeat here the bare bones of the suggestions I made to Karu Jayasuriya many months ago, when this government was young and I still thought that its decision makers meant what they had told the public –
1. The Assets Declarations of Ministers, Parliamentarians, Provincial Councillors and those heading government institutions that have entered into contracts of above a particular value should be made public. They should be uploaded on institutional websites within two weeks of laws / regulations to such effect being introduced.
2. A Commission should be empowered to go into these Declarations, and instituted investigations if the assets of any individual have grown disproportionately in the last five years.
3. Individuals who hand over assets which they cannot prove were legitimately acquired may be given an amnesty, on condition of taking no part in public life for a specific period.
4. Any information provided by the public about inflated tenders, undue costs for contracts with national and international suppliers, acceptance of shoddy construction work or equipment supplied, should be investigated. Individuals handing over assets obtained improperly through such instances may be given an amnesty, on condition of taking no part in public life.