One of my more naïve assumptions as I entered Parliament, in April 2010, was that it was an independent institution. I also assumed that it was the role of backbenchers, even on the government side, to bring issues to the attention of the executive. I was therefore the first member on the government side to ask a question, and also the first to propose an adjournment motion.
Some of my colleagues actually questioned this and suggested I was trying to embarrass the government. But at a Parliamentary Group Meeting the President indicated that we should get involved in such parliamentary practices, and not leave it all to the opposition, whereupon others followed suit.
I was less lucky about another initiative I started, which was to propose adjournment motions signed also by opposition members. I had found several who seemed like me to want the dignity of Parliament upheld, but after I had got several signatures – Ramesh Pathirana and Neranjan Wickremesinghe from the UPFA, Rosy Senanayake and Buddhika Pathirana from the UNP, Sunil Handunetti of the JVP and Mr Saravanaparvan of the TNA and Mr Radhakrishnan of the UPF – one member of the government group questioned the concept and, sure enough, at the next Parliamentary group meeting, the President said this was not proper. Unbeknownst to me, his idea of promoting consensus was to bring people over to then vote with government on all issues – which happened soon afterwards, giving the government a 2/3rd majority – not, as I had hoped, to promote initiatives which parliamentarians on all sides would favour. As a matter of interest, I give here the text of the motion which eight of us signed and handed in to the Leader of the House –
We, the undersigned Members of Parliament, representing a cross-section of parties, request that the following adjournment motion be taken up for discussion as soon s possible –
That this House do stand adjourned to regret the numerous occasions on which Parliamentary questions have to be postponed again and again because of a failure to provide answers in time; to request Hon Ministers, while recognizing that such delays are due to circumstances beyond their control, to emphasize to Ministry staff and Heads of Departments the importance of providing answers quickly; to suggest that Ministries should set up systems to maintain records more carefully so as to have essential information readily available; to urge the relevant Ministries to devise and implement swiftly training programmes for public servants that will ensure skills in line with the requirements of a knowledge society; to request a thorough overhaul of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration to promote the provision of courses that may receive appropriate accreditation , to improve soft skills of communication and analysis as well as administration; and to urge the entrenchment in the public service of a culture of swift responsiveness to the needs of the public, with regard to information as well as action.
Meanwhile my first efforts with regard to structural change involved the Chief Government Whip, whom I had known and liked for a long time, ever since he had been instrumental in setting up the discussions that led to formation of the coalition on which Mrs Bandaranaike was intended to contest the 1988 Presidential Election. He like many others had dropped out thereafter, but he had always remained affable, and indeed during the last Parliament he continued supportive of some of my efforts at reform.
A few months after the Parliament was elected, I wrote to him about setting up a Select Committee ‘to make proposals for developing Transparency and Accountability, both to Parliament and to the public’. This was in the context of a discussion we had had in Parliament about the Freedom of Information Bill which had been proposed by Karu Jayasuriya, and also about the possibility of setting up Parliament Oversight Committees.
I had in fact given the President a proposal for such Committees which I had got from the Inter Parliamentary Union Secretary General, Anders Johanssen, who was a great friend of my father (and contributed a lovely piece, on services he had rendered to parliaments in emerging democracies, to the collection of essays I published for my father’s 90th birthday). The President had told me to give the document to the Leader of the House, which I did, only to find it lost thereafter in his office. A very similar document emerged later in the form of a proposal by Karu, which might have been based on what I had given the LO office, though it is also possible that Karu also had excellent contacts with the IPU.
My letter covers a lot of ground, suggesting that
‘Areas such a Select Committee could go into, to propose relevant legislation and modes of operation in consultation with opposition parties, are –
a) Ensuring due follow up to the work of existing Committees of Parliament (the establishment of sub-committees for COPE for instance has led to us being able to cover all the institutions under our purview, as opposed to the tiny proportion that was looked into in the past). We also need a schedule of action required to be distributed on a monthly basis, instead of simply receiving answers from the few institutions that bother to reply, which has thus far been the practice.
b) Strengthening Consultative Committees to go into questions of policy and principle on a consensual basis. These could in fact function as Oversight Committees, but with modes of operation that will ensure their activities will be productive rather than confrontational. In this regard government should take the lead in making proposals rather than leave it to opposition to advance impractical ideas that can then be used for political capital.
I have already shared ideas in this regard sent to me by the Secretary General of the IPU with His Excellency the President and with the Hon Leader or the House. I believe, as the Hon Karu Jayasuriya seemed to grant, that these ideas were the basis for the opposition proposal in this regard!
Further, while in England, I met the former High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Linda Duffield, who now heads the Westminster Foundation, with which I have been engaging in another context. She mentioned the possibility of assistance with training for Parliamentarians, and I believe this will be very helpful in the context of strengthening committees in Parliament, and in particular the role of backbench MPs from the government side.
c) Drafting regulations to maximize transparency and accountability also in the private sector and in particular the Non-Governmental sector. We need also to ensure equitable and effective taxation policies for this sector, to maximize government revenue whilst not limiting productive action.
d) Promoting the legislation which will be required when the National Action Plan on Human Rights is approved by Cabinet, with emphasis on developing consensual methods of ensuring remedial action without litigation and confrontation as has been traditional.
I sent a copy of the letter also to Sarath Amunugama, who was Deputy Minister of Finance at the time. But neither he nor Dinesh took the ideas forward. Perhaps they were not in a position to do anything, and certainly both indicated in the years that followed that they had little influence over policy matters. But I also got the impression that they were not willing to try, even though both were aware that things were going from bad to worse.
Efforts to work through consensus then were doomed. But it is also significant that one initiative to involve backbenchers more in policy matters was also sabotaged. Oddly enough this came from Basil Rajapaksa, who was generally not a team worker. But after the initial debacle in Geneva in 2012, he took the lead in suggesting the establishment of groups to discuss foreign policy. At the first meeting he made the mistake of suggesting that I draft some policy papers for a few of the areas that had been demarcated.
Whether that was the reason or not, the Minister of External Affairs promptly put a stop to the exercise. I went to one of the meetings that had been scheduled, to which the Secretary to the Ministry also came, but it did not start. Dinesh told me later that the Minister had said such meetings should not be held without him, and since he was too busy to give times, the initiative collapsed.
It was apparent then that government was supposed to be for the governors, ie the few members of the Cabinet who were in the inner circle. Since other members of the Cabinet were also sidelined, I had indeed been naïve to believe that ordinary parliamentarians were supposed, despite their official responsibilities, to contribute to policy or to legislation.