Coincidentally, shortly after I began work on suggesting new ways of working in the Public Sector, I was asked to contribute to a workshop on ways in which to develop the capacity of Members of Parliament. This was a request from the Organization of Professional Associations, which I recall contributing significantly to public policy several years ago. It seems recently to have lain relatively dormant, which saddened me, not least because it had a great opportunity in 2015 when a government committed to reforms was elected.

Sadly many of those who genuinely believed in good governance thought they had elected a government committed to this, and relaxed. Before long they realized that good governance was not at all intended by the Prime Minister who was calling the shots. He was more concerned with winning the next General Election, and for that purpose he had to ensure that the President remained a cipher. So the President did nothing constructive in the six months in which he could have asserted himself because of the strong SLFP presence in Parliament.

Instead, as he said when I complained about the first breach of his manifesto, he had left those matters to Ranil and Chandrika. He advised me to speak to them, but I said I would do nothing of the sort. I had come out in support of him, and I did not think I had any reason to appeal to two people who had shown themselves failures when they had had power.

The President, who could have taken control had he allowed the UPFA to come out on top in the August 2015 election too, missed his chance then. Instead he allowed himself to be terrified first by those in the Rajapaksa camp who threatened him, second by those around him who – having rallied to his side only after he won – wanted to ensure that the Rajapaksas were kept out. So, in what I believe was his first unethical move in politics, he replaced the Secretary of the UPFA, which he had no right to do – as he himself accepted when he got Susil Premjayanth to do the dirty work he did not need.

So he is still significantly under Ranil’s control though, to give the man his due, he wants to break away from this, and is trying hard. He passed his first litmus test when he did not reappoint the crooked Arjuna Mahendran to be Governor of the Central Bank again, despite Ranil’s efforts. But then he collapsed into lethargy again, and it seems from his recent pronouncements that he is still more terrified of what Mahinda Rajapaksa might do to him than he is of what Ranil is doing to the country.

Symptomatic of his diffidence, despite being President, and despite still not being hated by significant numbers in the country – unlike his two rivals for authority – is his failure to push for what he personally pledged, namely electoral reform. This is the more disappointing, in that that is the key to better governance, the replacement of the type of MP thrown up by our preposterous electoral system by individuals whose credentials have been checked before they are presented to the electorate.

That is the most important change needed if we are to have better Members of Parliament. There should be clear procedures for selection of candidates to represent any particular electorate, with examination of not just their standing in that electorate, but also their understanding of local problems as well as their capacity to propose solutions. They should also be tested on their understanding of national issues, as well as knowledge of the role of legislators.

In Britain, the home of the Westminster system, which is the system that twins legistlative and executive power by providing for Ministers only from within Parliament, there is in effect a dual selection process. First, potential candidates have to be accepted by the Party, which checks on their general abilities. Then local party associations select from amongst those, already accepted onto the central party list, who offer themselves for any particular constituency.

In Sri Lanka however individuals are allocated constituencies at the whim of the party hierarchy. Sometimes this is based on prior performance in a district, individuals being changed at whim as with my old friend Mahinda Samarasinghe who was first sent to Matugama, with which he had no real connection, and was then moved to Panadura after he did not do well at the last General Election.

Mahinda would I think serve the citizens of Panadura better than he does those of Matugama, but he is also constrained by the fact that he needs to win votes throughout the district to get into Parliament. I do not think he will be able to do this easily. But at the same time he is the sort of member a party needs, since he is able to study and understand his briefs and can conceptualize. He should therefore be permitted, if Panadura is where he thinks he can be most effective, to concentrate only on that electorate, developing programmes to support the citizens of that electorate while also thinking about general issues.

The President promised electoral reform. The spectres of Sajin Vas and Kshenuka continue to haunt me, and I have no real explanation for the failure to build in the four years before the last Presidential election on the general goodwill from all communities Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoyed in 2010. So I still think the change that took place in 2015 is not to be regretted. But it is deeply worrying that Maithripala Sirisena is still not striving to fulfil the many commitments on which he was elected. He did reduce the powers of the Presidency, but he flunked on reducing the size of the cabinet and ensuring that it was scientifically constituted. And sadly he flunked on the most important of his commitments, which was to reform the electoral system – and he flunked even though he promised his Parliamentary group that he would ensure this happened before he dissolved Parliament.

What can he do now, to at least make clear his commitment to the principles of good governance which he at least still seems committed to? He could first of all make clear his commitment to electoral reform, by appointing a committee headed by the intellectually brilliant Mahinda Deshapriya to lay down parameters for change. Second he could immediately propose changes to the current system which gives voters three choices, and restrict this to one. This will ensure that candidates can concentrate on the electorates which they are supposed to serve rather than trawl for extra votes from the District at large. And, if he can ensure that Duminda Dissanayake is competent enough to supervise this – John Seneviratne woud be so much better, and command more confidence, – he could set in place a system to ensure that potential candidates, having estabilished their general capabilities to the party’s satisfaction, are then able to prove understanding of local problems as well as the intellectual and organizational skills needed to resolve them. If he does this for the SLFP, by laying down clear ground rules on which candidates are chosen for particular electorates, he will set an example that all other parties will feel obliged to follow.

But it is not an easy task. I have no idea whether the President is up to it, or whether he knows to select suitable people to ensure success. I have had few dealings with him since 2014, when Vasantha Senanayake and I (unlike all the others who were indebted to Chandrika or Ranil) took the decision to support him without asking for any reward. But the few dealings I have had suggested a man who is concerned with principles, even though he had neither the support staff nor the conceptualization capacity to take things forward.

He now has Austin Fernando to support him, which is a step forward. Mr Abeykoon was a very decent man, but he could not really conceptualize, as I found when I was working with UNDP support towards improvement of public sector service delivery during the tenure of the last government. Austin is obviously more intellectually capable, but he may see himself as primarily supporting UNP interests, as did Palith Pelpola, the personal Secretary the President appointed in 2015.

But the President could at least, through some of his personal advisers who are committed to his reforms, work out areas in the manifesto with which Austin feels comfortable, and then task him to develop plans to effect the essential reforms. Ensuring service delivery through Divisional Secretariats would for instance be something Austin could promote, given his own administrative experience. And that in turn could lead to purposeful liaison between the MP for the area (no longer the whole District) and the one or two (or at most three one hopes) Divisional Secretariats under his purview.

This relates to the role of Parliamentarians as representing particular constituencies, not to their wider responsibilities as legislators for the nation. But I believe in that area too measures should be taken to improve their quality, for they need to understand that they should work in terms of long term development rather than satisfying immediate individual needs. Thus they should create employment rather than dish out jobs at government expense; they should expand training opportunities and promote value addition skills and entrepreneurship; they should provide social amenities that encourage community bonding.

All this needs better understanding of what it means to service a community in the modern world. For this purpose it is desirable that parties train candidates before they face election, and Parliament trains those who have been elected. A simple way of encouraging productive interventions would be research into how current Parliamentarians have spent their decentralized budgets, with assessment of the impact of funds expended. Incidentally, it is a pity that there is no study of how these funds have been divided amongst Divisions in the country – if so, it would have been clear that areas in great need with limited electoral influence get very little, as for instance I found when the Mullaitivu District Secretary sent me a schedule that indicated I had spent more in the poorer Divisions of his District than all other Members of Parliament taken together.

Sadly none of this means anything to Colombo based organizations such as the group that set up what was supposed to be an MP monitoring website. Getting their funds from Western donors anxious for regime change, they developed criteria that allowed Ravi Karunanayake to emerge as the most effective Member of Parliament. It was largely interventions that counted – which was why, given the small size of the opposition, their members dominated the top slots except for the Chief Government Whip who had perforce to speak often since his colleagues in the Cabinet happily dodged questions and left them to him.

With such unscientific researchers dominating the funding stakes for good governance, no wonder we have not got very far. But I hope the OPA, which is disinterested, will do better. And after the workshop, I will write more about what it seems is of greater concern to them than the role of Parliamentarians as representatives of a particular segment of the population, namely their work as legislators – which at present is a grey area to almost all Members of Parliament.

Ceylon Today 25 July 2017-