I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.
Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.
In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.
With the Donoughmore Constitution the legislature and the executive became inextricably mixed. Initially this was through Committees that looked after several functions of government, and also elected Chairs who functioned as Ministers. Later that Committee system was abolished, and Ministers appointed by the head of government exercised their responsibilities independently.
The input then of the legislature into the day to day business of the executive diminished. Though Parliament continued to have committees, they had very limited powers. Increasingly their functions were confined to parochial matters rather than policy making or oversight. And though there were separate finance oversight Committees, the Public Accounts Committee and later also a Committee on Public Enterprises, they had no statutory powers.
This is unfortunate, because Parliament must play a greater role in these areas. At present legislation is almost entirely the preserve of the executive, and bills are placed before the relevant committee of Parliament at the very end, when there is little opportunity to suggest changes. This leads in turn to contention on the floor of the House and, if this is grave enough, the Bill is withdrawn.
In other countries what happens is thorough discussion in Committee, without the adversarial approach that inhibits consensus. In addition there is careful scrutiny of the work of the Ministry in these committees. On top of that the Finance Oversight Committees provide a solid check on the way government uses public finances, by the simple mechanism of allowing opposition members to chair these committees.
This was the practice in Sri Lanka until the overwhelming government majority of the 1970 government led to Bernard Soysa continuing as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. But at least some norms were observed in that he did not take up Ministerial office (though given his skills he was always appointed to act for the Finance Minister when the latter was away). Then, after the 1977 election, though an opposition member was appointed to head the PAC, this was Mr Thondaman, and when he became a Minister he continued in charge of the PAC.
After that these oversight committees continued to be under the control of a member of the Executive. In addition, unlike in other countries where Parliamentary oversight of government functions is taken seriously, in Sri Lanka Ministers chair their own Consultative Committees.
I tried to change this through amendments to Standing Orders a couple of years back, but no one was interested, except for the Chief Government Whip who wanted the matter taken up. But his efforts were crushed at the Parliamentary Business Committee. Then the matter was included in the manifesto of the current President, but this was forgotten after the election. The current Leader of the House did put my motion on Parliament’s Agenda, and it was seconded and referred to the Standing Orders Committee, but that met only twice in the last six months.
It did approve most of my changes, though discussion of Consultative Committees was deferred, since we were told the Prime Minister had some ideas in this regard. But these did not come to the Committee, and his contempt for the Committee system was seen in the fact that there were only 9 meetings of Committees in the last si months (whereas in theory every Ministry should have a Committee meeting once a month – ie there should have been over 200 meetings).
With regard to reforms the Speaker was very helpful at the last meeting of the Standing Orders Committee, in the week Parliament was dissolved, and we even talked about introducing a Code of Conduct, on the lines of what is included in the Standing Orders of the New Zealand Parliament. The Speaker promised then to circulate to Members of Parliament a copy of the Code that had been prepared by President Premadasa.
We felt – we being just three people since it was only the SLFP that was present apart from myself – that this should be prescribed by Parliament since it was not the business of the Executive to lay down guidelines for members of the Legislature. Unfortunately Parliament was dissolved a couple of days later, so that initiative came to nothing. But the Parliament staff, who had been extremely helpful, will I hope lay our decisions before the Standing Orders Committee of the next Parliament, and expedite adoption of the changes we have recommended.
I cannot too strongly stress the point that power should not be concentrated. Sri Lanka has for too long had an overmighty executive. This was made worse by the Executive Presidential system as formulated by J R Jayewardene, but even before that the post of Prime Minister had been the source of all authority. That is why it was important to stop the present Prime Minister from simply transferring all powers to himself, by the mechanism of declaring that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister.
On the contrary, we need to build up alternative centres of authority. The most important of these is Parliament, but we must also strengthen the Judiciary, the Public Service and the Media. That is why we need not only an independent Public Service Commission, but we must also ensure that the most important positions in the Public Service come under that Commission, not the Executive.
That is why we need a Freedom of Information Act, which simplifies access to information and allows the media to ask about the information that is made available. They should not be muzzled as now happens with regard for instance to Assets Declarations, which can in theory be obtained for a fee, but which cannot be publicized. These should be available on websites and readily so – in New Zealand for instance a Registrar of Parliament provides details of Assets declarations to the public without the public having to search for these.
We need to strengthen the Judiciary and also expedite processes so that the people are served better. And above all we need to strengthen Parliament so that members of the legislature can contribute to policy and make sure that public money is spent productively. For this purpose Ministers or their Deputies should not chair Parliamentary Committees. These must come under Parliamentarians without executive responsibilities so that they can function with independence and objectivity on behalf of the people, not the government.