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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.

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Five years ago the country was full of promise. I believe that promise could easily have been fulfilled, had government not fallen prey to a few rent seekers. What happened, in particular in the last couple of years, was tragic, and I believe a full study of the triumph and the tragedy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be immensely illuminating.

But that should be undertaken after more reflection. In this series I will look only at a few measures that could easily have been undertaken without controversy, to have strengthened relations between the government and the people. I am sure many individuals had many ideas, but obviously I can only discuss in some detail those I had personal knowledge of. I will therefore in this series look at some of the work I tried to do, which was stymied more through neglect than deliberate policy – except perhaps with regard to one or two individuals, who could brook no rivalry (something from which President Sirisena too suffered). For this purpose I will go through some of the letters and memoranda I sent over the years, with decreasing impact.

To go back to 2010, President Rajapaksa had succeeded the previous year, against what seemed insuperable odds, in eliminating the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Then he had won the Presidential election handsomely, despite the range of support, national and international, received by his opponent, General Sarath Fonseka. He had also won the parliamentary election that followed, with a healthy majority.

Reconstruction was proceeding apace in the North, and the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres was moving ahead successfully. The over 4000 suspects, who had been in custody before the conclusion of the war, had been reduced to well under 2000. For this purpose the President had appointed a Committee which I chaired, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and we had received full cooperation from the relevant authorities, the army and the police and prisons officials. And the National Human Rights Action Plan, which had been abandoned during the election period, was being finalized.

I was no longer officially in charge, for I was now in Parliament. The Ministry of Human Right had been abolished and, when I inquired as to what would happen about this vital area, I was told that it would be looked after by the Ministry of External Affairs. But the Ministry was ill equipped for such a task, and indeed it failed to make proper use of my project staff, who had been transferred there. In fact, because of bureaucratic delays, it lost the services of our able consultant Nishan Muthukrishna, and I began to wonder whether the Action Plan was doomed. But then the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, was put in charge. Though he was very busy, he allowed our meetings to be held in his office, and we were able to move swifty and have a final draft approved by Cabinet the following year.

I had expected to receive a Ministry, since there seemed no purpose in having someone who was not a constituency politician, and had no ambitions to become one, in Parliament without other functions. I gather this had been planned, but the delay in finalizing the election results proved fatal, and I was told there was strong opposition to my being appointed by those who disliked my pluralistic credentials and my support for the 13th Amendment. The Swiss Ambassador at the time had told me she had heard I was to become Foreign Minister, but that seemed far-fetched. Education seemed more likely, but then Lalith Weeratunge told Kumar Rupesinghe, who said he had been pushing for this, that they had found someone far more suitable. Bandula Gunawardena was accordingly appointed.

I did not worry about this, for I thought I should in any case learn more about Parliament, and I had assumed, having known Parliament previously from the days when my father was Secretary General, that members could contribute to legislation and policy decisions. That was intended according to the Standing Orders, which I studied because, unexpectedly, I was put on the Committee on Standing Orders. I had not asked for that, or the Committee on Public Enterprises, but these soon became my main areas of concentration.

With regard to Ministry Consultative Committees, I was not put on those for Defence and for External Relations which I had asked for, given my previous work in those areas as Head of the Peace Secretariat. But I was interested enough in some of the others I was appointed to, including Women’s Affairs and Child Development, and also Resettlement. But I soon found that these were not productive bodies, being occupied for the most part with individual constituency concerns.

I tried to change this, and was happy when Manthri, the organization that monitors the work of Members of Parliament, reported recently that I was the most active in this regard of National List MPs, and in the first ten of all MPs. They were able to do this because, after I pressed the matter, the Secretary General decided to publish the proceedings of Committees. These make clear how few members bother to attend, and indeed how infrequently meetings are held. Indeed, in the over five months in which a government supposedly dedicated to strengthening Parliament was in office, just nine committee meetings were held, whereas there should have been one a month for each Ministry, a total of about 150.

Meanwhile the Committee on Standing Orders came to a standstill. We had proceeded swiftly after our first meeting, at which it became clear that not many of the members had much interest in the matter or any great understanding of the issues involved. But they were happy to let those of us who were keen on the matter – namely the Deputy Speaker, Chandima Weerakkody, Mr Sumanthiran of the TNA and myself – to work intensively. We had redrafted about a quarter of the document when all hell broke loose.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2017
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