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qrcode.31254677I was asked recently in an interview to mention seven areas of priority for the new Parliament. I began with Education and Reconciliation which have long been priorities for me. But then I also noted some other areas in which structural change was essential.

One of these was providing greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making. But I did not by this mean a return to the old debate about devolution and sharing power between the Centre and Provincial governments. My stress was on more power to local bodies, and I also thought it vital to develop better consultation mechanisms.

I am glad that the UPFA manifesto notes this need, and I hope they will study the progress made in this area by the Ministry of Public Administration, working in collaboration with UNDP. A couple of years back the Ministry Secretary sent out a circular about regular meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and he also issued, together with the Secretary for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a circular setting up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. Building on such initiatives, there was an excellent report prepared by Asoka Gunewardena on improving Service Delivery in the Divisions. This should be used to flesh out the manifesto, leading I hope to fulfilment of the President’s commitment in his January manifesto that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area’.

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qrcode.30978419One of the promises in the President’s manifesto which was broken was that relating to the Right to Information Bill. The manifesto pledged that the Bill would be introduced on the 20th of February and passed within three weeks. Some sort of leeway was also given, because it was actually a month later, on the 20th of March, that it was pledged the Bill would be passed.

There is no excuse whatsoever for having failed to get this done. True, the Right to Information was incorporated in the Constitution in April, but this needed to be fleshed out through a Bill. Such a Bill was indeed drafted, and circulated at the beginning of April, so I assumed all would be well. I found the draft generally satisfactory, though I suggested some changes to extend its scope, including posting electronically for the information of the public ‘the Declarations of Assets of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries, Chairs of Public Authorities and all officials responsible for contracts or expenditure over the value of Rs 1 million…… Gifts over the value of Rs 500,000 received by such individuals should also be recorded.’

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qrcode.30889285Tarzie Vittachi’s ‘Island in the Sun’ is perhaps the best piece of political satire written in this country. It has graphic desctiptions of the politicians of the nineties, with Sir John Kotelawala for instance being the Rogue Elephant and Dudley Senanayake the Tired Tortoise. J R Jayewardene was the Seethala Kotiya, a description that perhaps would not fit his nephew, familiarly known as ‘Poos’ in the family, a milder member of the Cat family.

But there is another description that fits Ranil well too, given the strange goings on at the Central Bank. Tarzie suggested that R G Senanayake could not move straight even when that was the easiest thing to do. So now we find that, what might have been an understandable – if capital friendly – change of policy was not done direct as a principled man like Eran Wickremaratne might have done. Rather there was clandestine activity which, in a Watergate style operation, has been concealed so that the ugly truth emerges only gradually.

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qrcode.30693280An ambassador who seems to understand this country well said recently that he thought the greatest mistake this government had made was to let me go. I have to admit though that that was probably more flattering than accurate.  One can see rather that the greatest mistake was to ignore completely the manifesto on which the President had won the election, and instead assume it was about two things and two things alone – the abolition of the Executive Presidency and having an election after 100 days.

Unfortunately now the government will be remembered for just two things, one the laudable reduction in the authoritarian powers of the Presidency, the second the Central Bank Bond Scam. But there was much else in the manifesto that could easily have been implemented in the almost six months which the government had before Parliament was dissolve.

I have already looked at the seven broken promises with regard to reform that were mentioned in the 100 day programme, viz

1)      Electoral Reform

2)      Amendment of Standing Orders

3)      The Right to Information Act

4)      The new Audit Act

5)      A Code of Conduct

6)      A Cabinet of not more than 25 members representing all political parties in Parliament

7)      A National Advisory Council including all political parties in Parliament

The last three of these did not require a Parliamentary majority, and three of the others could have been passed with a simple majority. But the failure to develop consensus on issues of common national interest, and instead concentrate on Ministries for one party, and the perks that went with these, led to disaster.

Those blunders are obvious. For the next couple of weeks I shall look at some of the excellent ideas in the manifesto that were completely ignored. The total failure of this government to entrench better systems of government, based on ideas that had been canvassed for a long time but which had not been taken forward, must be registered, and I hope the government elected in August will move swiftly on such matters.

One of the most innovative ideas in the manifesto occurred in the section entitled ‘An advanced and responsible public sector’.  The second bullet point there read, ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.’

Though I used the word innovative, in fact this represents a recognition of reality. A hundred years ago, when the British began to think of appointing Sri Lankan Government Agents, the Province was obviously the practical unit of administration. But as populations grew and the business of government expanded, the District became more important and accordingly Government Agents were appointed to Districts too. Now however, with so much more to do and for so many more people, it is the Divisional Secretariat that has to initiate and oversee action in most particulars. Unfortunately we are still stuck in hidebound systems, and Divisional Secretaries do not have the decision making powers they need. In addition, many government departments are not well represented in the Division, which leads to long delays with regard to action, let alone decisions.

After the problems I had noted in the North and East, I discussed the matter with those with experience in the field including the immensely knowledgeable Asoka Gunawardena and the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Mr Abeykoon, who is now the Secretary to the President. We then approached the UN, which set up a consultancy, and last year we got a comprehensive report from Asoka on ‘Improving Service Delivery in the Divisions’. Unfortunately, when the election season set in, the Secretary put the matter on hold. Though Karu Jayasuriya was initially keen to take things forward, it turned out that he was not the responsible Minister, given the manner in which Public Administration had been carved up. I did mention the matter to the Minister responsible, but such reforms are not really his concern, and in the mad rush for elections the matter had been forgotten.

After the election I hope a concerted effort will be made to move forward in this area. It is important to make sure however that this is done with provision to consult the people, something the last President pledged which was not done. Mr Abeykoon had set the process in motion, through a circular that instructed Grama Niladharis to chair the Civil Defence Committee meetings in their GN Divisions, but this has not really taken off. Clear instructions are needed as to how the ideas brought up at consultative meetings should be taken forward (something that can be improved in Parliament too, where minutes are not promptly circulated and action points rarely recorded). This was planned, but elections intervened.

At the last meeting of the Home Affairs Consultative Committee in Parliament, this being the Ministry entrusted with District and Divisional Administration, I brought the matter up, only to find that the Minister and the new Secretary knew nothing about this. They had not been briefed, but the Minister promised to look into the matter, and I hope that he will find some time during electioneering to at least ensure that a position paper is prepared for him, or for his successor.

Meanwhile, nothing has been done in the last couple of years with regard to the other area of governance that is closest to the people. I refer to the work of elected officials, namely the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha and his team. At present their functions are confused, because there have been significant changes in the manner in which these are organized – utilities for instance are supposed to be their responsibility, but both water and electricity require much central government involvement.

Because of all this a new Local Government Act was being prepared, and with the blessings of the Minister, the Secretary gave me a copy of the draft for comment. I found it a great improvement on what we have now, but thought there should be entrenchment of consultation procedures, with the advisory committees to local bodies being composed of representatives of community organizations, not appointees of those in political authority.

The Secretary, one of the brightest of our Civil Servants, Mr Ranawaka, took the ideas on board, but he was then entrusted with other responsibilities and the Act seemed to have been forgotten. But if good governance is to become a reality, the next government should study the current situation, with the help of Asoka Goonewardene’s comprehensive report, and set in place systems to ensure that people have ready access to the services government should provide at local level.

qrcode.30640274In the last few articles in this series, before we know whether or not the Reforms this country needs will be taken forward or not, I will continue to look at the pledges in the President’s manifesto which have been ignored. The most important had to do with structural and political reforms, and of these the Government only bothered about one, leaving half a dozen undone.

But there were also very practical measures, which are equally important if we are to develop as our people deserve. Way back in the seventies the Economist I think described us as the only underdeveloped country that was still under-developing, and in 2001, the then Australian ambassador said he had never known a country go backwards so quickly, as we had done, during the period he had been here. That was one reason that motivated me to vote for the UNP in the December Election, though the way the LTTE ran circles round the government that took over soon caused worry. Still, I think it was a good thing we had a change then, since I think it also put the SLFP, in its PA incarnation which then changed to UPFA, back on its toes.

Development, when he experienced it, came largely through construction, as with D. S. Senanayake and his dams, the Mahaweli in JR’s time, and then the devotion to infrastructural development in rural areas under both Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. But while we must continue grateful to the last, both for bringing us security, and for his development programmes, in the last couple of years it became clear that not enough was being done with regard to Human Resource Development.

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qrcode.30377434Last week Parliament debated an Adjournment Motion introduced by Mr Yogarajan, one of the more thoughtful members on the government side of the house. He wanted more consultation of political parties and interested groups with regard to electoral reform.

This is an admirable idea, but it is significant, sadly so, that he should have proposed this only in June. As I have pointed out previously, the President’s manifesto said very clearly that on Wednesday January 28th ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’

Nothing of the sort was done, so it was surprising to hear the gentleman who seconded the motion claiming that the government had fulfilled almost all its promises. In essence, the process of consultation that the minor parties are pushing for now is something they should have urged as soon as the government was elected.

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qrcode.30319581In the last few weeks I have looked at the way in which several of the pledges regarding reforms in the President’s manifesto were forgotten or subverted by those to whom he entrusted the Reform process. In addition there are some fields in which reforms have been carried through, but in such a hamfisted fashion that the previous situation seems to shine by comparison.

One area in which this has happened is that of Foreign Relations. The shorter manifesto declared that ‘A respected Foreign Service free of political interference will be re-established’. This was fleshed out in the longer version, with the following being the first four Action Points –

  •  The country’s foreign policy will be formulated to reflect the government’s national perspectives.
  •  Within hundred days all political appointments and appointment of relatives attached to the Foreign Service will be annulled and the entire Foreign Service will be reorganised using professional officials and personnel who have obtained professional qualifications. Our foreign service will be transformed into one with the best learned, erudite, efficient personnel who are committed to the country and who hold patriotic views.
  •  Cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia, while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea without differences.
  • Our Indian policy will take into due consideration the diversity of India.

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qrcode.30268994In these last few articles on the tragedy that befell our hopes for comprehensive reform, I thought I should spell out how exactly Ranil Wickremesinghe and those working to his agenda hijacked the process. Their purpose, far from broadbasing power and ensuring a range of different authorities, was to concentrate power in the hands of what one of them lovingly described early on as an Executive Prime Minister.

Thus they took upon themselves alone the drafting of the 19th Amendment, without open discussion as had been pledged through the National Advisory Council. And so the discussion paper that came out in early March, circulated only to a select few, declared that

33A (2) The President shall, except in the case of the appointment of the Prime Minister or as otherwise required by the Constitution, act on the advice of the Prime Minister or of such other Minister as has been authorized by the Prime Minister to advise, the President with regard to any function assigned to that Minister

The rest of the draft was based on this proposition, with the Prime Minister being ‘the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers’.

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qrcode.30233817In this last lap as it were of my discussion of what should have been  comprehensive Reform Agenda, I thought it would be instructive to lay down the Reforms that were pledged in the manifesto on which the President won the election, and to explain how they have been ignored. Amongst these perhaps the most significant was the pledge about Electoral Reform, which read as follows –

Wednesday January 28

An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality

This pledge was totally ignored. No all party committee was set up, and no one seemed to have been entrusted with the task. The issue only came to the fore when the Opposition made it clear that that had to go through as well, if support for the 19th amendment was expected. Discussions then started, but many of those involved, politicians as well as officials, noted that the Prime Minister kept stalling. He ignored the clear information the Elections Commissioner gave about how a compromise formula could be implemented swiftly, and kept insisting that the change could not be made in time for his main ambition to be fulfilled, namely having Parliament dissolved on April 23rd. The constant reiteration of that theme and date by his sycophants in his party made clear that that was what they thought the President’s manifesto was about, not the range of reforms that had been put forward.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2017
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