One of the biggest stumbling blocks with regard to Good Governance is the confusion in Sri Lanka between the Executive and the Legislature. Such confusion is to some extent unavoidable in countries which have a Westminster system of government, where the heads of the Executive are drawn from Parliament. But in those countries which should be our models if we are to continue with this requirement, there are rules and regulations and customs that prevent the abuse we suffer from in Sri Lanka.
I realized how stringent these rules are when communicating with an old friend who is now a senior member of the British Cabinet. He has been kind enough to respond to emails, but initially one gets an automatic response which makes clear the difference between constituency matters and those pertaining to his portfolio. The former is handled from within the constituency, and there is obviously no question of support for his electoral prospects from within his Ministry.
Personal staff pertaining to Ministry matters are drawn from within the Ministry, as I found out long ago, soon after my university days, when high fliers who had joined the Civil Service (all retired now I fear) were appointed to work with the Minister. But even so, when meetings are held with regard to official matters, it is those within the relevant departments who work with the Minister.
There is nothing like the system which obtains here, where Coordinating Secretaries, chosen as the Minister wants, exercise authority often in excess of that of the Secretary to the Ministry. Since their function is to support the Minister, not the Ministry, very often they are the conduit through which problems in the Constituency (a large District, given our ridiculous electoral system) are solved through the use of Ministry resources.
In the nineties there was actually a circular to the effect that minor vacancies should be filled only from a list sent by the Ministry. This in effect meant the Minister, who could thus satisfy what is seen as the primary function of those in executive office, namely providing employment for their constituents. The list then is usually entrusted to the Minister’s personal staff, who thus end up deciding who is to get permanent employment in a Ministry meant for the whole country, not a particular constituency or District. So schools are now being filled with people from Kuliyapitiya, just as in the nineties all the Oluvil University security guards came from Galle, and workers in the Galle Harbour came from Oluvil.
Ministers get personal staff on top of the personal staff they have as Members of Parliament, but many more. If government feels – and I have no doubt the opposition would agree with this – that a Member needs many hands to fulfil constituency needs, then I would suggest increasing a Member’s personal staff, while cutting down on the personal staff of a Minister. But in the long run, if we move towards a sane electoral system, the catchment area a Member has to cover becomes much smaller, so it could be managed with the same number of staff as at present, or even fewer.
Meanwhile, even if a Minister’s personal staff is not cut down, we should make sure they report to the Ministry, and are held accountable by the Ministry Secretary. Of course the position of the Secretary has been weakened by the politicization of the position, and our failure, in passing the 19th Amendment, to revert to the old practice of the Secretary being appointed by the Public Service Commission, on a permanent basis.
But even now the Secretary should be expected to exercise authority over the Minister’s personal staff, and get reports from them of what they are doing for the Ministry. They should be expected to report to work every day, unless they have leave approved by the Secretary (though I would expect this to be granted if recommended in writing by the Minister).
And in order to avoid embarrassment, or exceptions with regard to special cases, it should be very clear that no relation should be appointed to the Ministry personal staff. If however any Minister feels destitute without wife or child at his side, a position of Social Secretary could be created, for work to be done at the residence, without confusion with regard to ministerial responsibilities.
A second important area in which we suffer from confusion of a sort that does not occur elsewhere in the world is with regard to the monitoring function of Parliament. Elsewhere in the world, Ministers do not chair the Parliamentary committees that oversee the work of their Ministries, These are usually entrusted to the opposition, but even a backbencher of the government side could do the job, provided he or she were chosen by consensus on the basis of particular knowledge of the field of action.
Obviously if the Minister is in charge, the Committee will not be able to fulfil effectively what are supposed to ‘inquire into and report upon ….. any Bill, proposals for legislation, supplementary or other estimates, statements of expenditure, motions, annual reports or papers.’ This is because their attention is confined to ‘such matters as are referred to it by the Chairman or by Parliament’.
Rarely are such matters referred, except when a Bill that has already been gazette is brought before the Committee just before it is presented to Parliament. Instead the Committee usually just looks at matters Members bring up, and these almost always deal with particular constituency requirements. I am told this is something that is now being explored by Verite, the Research Organization that amongst other matters is concerned with the effectiveness of Parliamentarians, and their report I am told notes that I am head and shoulders above others in dealing with policy matters. But given the existing culture, I cannot blame my colleagues for not working in the manner Parliamentarians in other countries do.
The Standing Order changes I had proposed were not looked at when the Committee, after much badgering, finally met. We covered all the other areas I had brought up, but the government was supposed to produce its own proposals in this regard, to set up what are termed Sectoral Committees. The draft that I saw was generally acceptable, though it could do with some tightening up. However it never came before Parliament, because the Prime Minister wanted to wait until after the 19th Amendment was passed – and then, after that was passed, he thought his job was over and did not bother any more about the commitments in the manifesto.
These are areas I hope the new Parliament will look into. Much groundwork has been done, but someone will need to focus on this area, since systems are not of much interest to most Members, and in particular those who exercise authority over Parliament in our system, namely the Ministers. But unless something is done about the conflict of interests our current system encourages, there will be no hope of Good Governance.