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In the last couple of weeks we have seen what seems total rejection of the ideals of Good Governance through which this government came to office. I shall look today at the performance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, having spent time previously on another vital Ministry, that of Finance. But I should note that with regard to many others – with a few honourable exceptions of course – there seems little activity, so that it is not just principles of Good Governance that are being breached, but the very idea of Governance.
I regret very much that Karu Jayasuriya has done nothing thus far with regard to the important task allotted to him with regard to Governance. I appreciate the fact that, given relations between him and Ranil he feels diffident, but that should not stop him taking initiatives in areas that will win him universal commendation. He could for instance easily stop the excessive perks that politicians enjoy, in particular the opportunities to abuse Ministry funds provided by the constitution of Ministerial private offices.
In my former Ministry for instance, now a Cabinet portfolio with a Deputy too, the perks of office continue unabated. My former staff, whose use of the vehicles to which they were entitled I restricted, have told me how many vehicles the Ministers, or rather their private staff, use between them. Meanwhile the two Ministers together are less in office than I was, and there is little progress in the University sector, with the imbroglio over the latest and the previous Advanced Levels continuing in the Courts. And though the new Cabinet Minister finally looked at the Act we had drafted, he like many others seems to think that there is no point in any action since an election is imminent.
I thought today that, given the wider interests of the organizers, I should talk in general about principles of good governance. I had a series of articles in the ‘Island’ some months back on the role of Parliament in promoting good governance, and that too is available on the blog, in a separate section. I had written these following a request from the Parliamentary administration to contribute to a journal they had started. Sadly I was the only Parliamentarian to contribute to that journal, which I thought a sad reflection on my colleagues, Including those I have come to think of as the second and third most intelligent and objective individuals in Parliament who are speaking with me here today.
Sadly however I now think that the reflection is on me, for thinking that detailed analysis of public policy serves any purpose. My articles drew no response whatsoever in the press, except for one thoughtful article by a man called Wijeweera whom I did not otherwise know. Sadly we have lost the custom of building on the good ideas of others. The papers are full of individuals referring to the writings of others in order to attack them. Rarely however do people who think on the same lines refer to similar ideas when they advance their own, so the result is that each of us seems to be working in a vacuum. My colleagues therefore who concentrate on more parochial considerations are perhaps wiser than I am, in giving priority to their own political concerns, in speeches and pronouncements, rather than trying to develop discussions on principles that might contribute to reform.
The principal credit for this must go to the Chairman, the Hon DEW Gunasekara, who chaired the Committee with inclusive dedication. But I think, as indicated by his suggestion that I be asked to represent him at this discussion, that he would also highlight the role of Liberal principles which I was able to bring to bear on the work and the attitudes of the Committee.
The first problem which we resolved was that of having to deal with a vast number of institutions, only a few of which had been covered each year in the past. The solution was obvious, and I could not understand, when I suggested that we divide into sub-committees, why no one seemed to have thought of it previously, when the work of the Committee had expanded. Perhaps the explanation lay in the objection of one of those members who had specialized in criticism in the past, that it was necessary for the Committee to function as a whole.
One of my colleagues on the recent Parliamentary delegation to India noted that all the senior Indian political figures we met asked us about our electoral system. They were very polite, and did not mention that they thought it was a mad system, but they very gently indicated that they had heard it was quite complicated, and asked for some explication.
We seemed implicitly to agree with this diagnosis, for no one tried to explain the system, as opposed to indicating that we were keen on a change. This has in fact been the consensus in Sri Lanka for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, in spite of this broad agreement, we have failed to do anything about it, though this government has got closer than most in that it actually brought forward a bill to reform, if only to a limited extent, the system for local elections. Read the rest of this entry »
The Women’s Caucus of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats recently held a Workshop on Strategies for Women Candidates in Melaka in Malaysia. The event was hosted by the Women’s Wing of the Gerakan Party of Malaysia, and included delegates from nine Asian countries. Apart from staff from the CALD Secretariat, and from the Thai office of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which sponsored the event, the only men present were CALD Secretary General Neric Acosta of the Philippines and myself as CALD Chair.
Having missed the last meeting of the Women’s Caucus, I thought I should find out more about it since by next year I shall no longer be CALD chair and hence not eligible to attend. I was duly impressed, by the energy and commitment of all the delegates, and realized again the importance of ensuring a significant space for female participation in politics.
I should note that I was also enthralled, having attended a predominantly female event for the first time in nearly half a century. As a child I had attended a few guide camps with my mother, and found the evening conviviality fascinating, camp fire items, singing and dancing that bonded in a much more affectionate way than in similar gatherings for men only. In Melaka, at the grand dinner hosted by the Gerakan Party, at a centre for Babas and Nonyas, the descendants of Chinese and then European sailors who had found local wives over the centuries, the host was a jolly old Chinese gentleman dressed as a woman. He had an enormous repertoire of songs, including Sinhalese ones, and was accompanied by a two man band that went back to the days of Englebert Humperdinck. The elegant dancing of the distinguished women present was a joy to watch.
One of the most interesting aspects of the recent visit to India by a Parliamentary delegation was the opportunity it gave us to learn more about the Indian upper house and the way it functions. We were taken in to a meeting of the Rajya Sabha as it is called, and did not have to endure any protests, as had happened in the Lok Sabha – though I should note here that, while media attention was concentrated on the ten or so members who shouted at us, the 500 and more who cheered us were ignored, friendship obviously not being as notable in media parlance as hostility. And we should also register the authoritative but dignified way in which the Lady Speaker handled the situation, shooting down singlehanded it seemed the vociferous shouts of the unruly members.
There was a different scene in the Rajya Sabha, when one member insisted on making a protest and then walking out. I was told later that this was a member of the DMK, and he could not allow his party to be outdone, since the protest in the morning had been led by Jayalalitha’s AIDMK. The Chair of the upper house, who is also Vice-President of India, an extremely dignified Muslim gentleman, was not equal to shouting down his recalcitrant member, but that would not have been appropriate perhaps in that house. His apology however was equally sincere, and the rest of his membership, including a very articlulate member from Tamilnadu, more than made up for the embarrassment.
But that is the very nature of an upper house, a forum for quiet and collegiate discussion, where different approaches can be reconciled without recourse to the dramatization that is the essence of lower house debates all over the world. I have already mentioned the need to improve our committee system in Parliament, so as to develop opportunities for informed discussion and the building of consensus. But whereas that is part of the inner workings of a lower house, it is the very essence of an upper house which, while necessarily subordinate in legislative and other parliamentary powers to its twin, usually has a larger role to play with regard to fine-tuning legislation and ensuring responsiveness to non-political concerns.
Though Parliament is meant to approve all legislation, the way legislation is currently formulated presents massive problems to Parliamentarians, and I suspect few understand thoroughly what they are voting for or against. I include myself in this number, even though I have no doubts about my own intellectual capacity. The problem is, most Bills take the form of Amendments to earlier Bills, and all that is placed before Parliamentarians are such Amendments, without the original text. Obviously these cannot be understood easily without the original bill.
Initially, when it seemed that something more than simple changes of figures was involved, I used to seek a copy of the original Bill which was being amended. This however takes time to obtain, so I have requested the Secretary General to make copies of the original bill available in the Chamber.
He readily agreed but, on the first occasion on which I took advantage of this facility, I found another complication. What was being amended was an Act of 2006 as amended in 2007 and 2008 and 2009. It was therefore essential to get copies also of those Amendments, in addition to the original Act.
Then however I found that trying to follow amendments to amendments with three sets of papers in front of one is very difficult. If Parliamentarians find this difficult, it must be impossible for ordinary citizens. This only plays into the hands of lawyers, and I am sure contributes to litigation which would be unnecessary if the law were clear.
I had intended to conclude this series with the previous article, but confusion in Parliament recently, with regard to the Local Authorities Election (Amendment) Bill, highlighted some problems that require resolution. The main problem that arose was the absence of a Tamil translation of amendments that were to be moved in the Committee stage of the bill, but there were other problems too, all of which can be dealt with easily if some conceptual clarity is brought to the legislative process.
For those who do not understand the process by which legislation is passed – and this includes many Parliamentarians – there are supposed to be three Readings of any Bill before it becomes law. The first is simply the notice to Parliament that a Bill is proposed. There is no vote on this Reading.
Then comes the main decision making process, which is called the Second Reading. Before this there is usually a debate, and that debate is usually used to make general political points. Whilst a few of my colleagues actually address the provisions of the Bill, in support or in Opposition, most of them simply talk about politics in general. This is not however unusual or regrettable, since this is what might be described as the political stage of the legislative process.
Cutting down on election costs and refunding these through public funds
The reforms I have suggested may seem esoteric, of interest only to the few people who are concerned about constitutional principles. They could be dismissed as the obsessions of a theoretician, with little practical experience of politics.
But they do have a very practical application, which will be extremely beneficial not only to the people, but also to politicians. For instance, it is obvious to everyone that the present electoral system requires massive resources on the part of individuals. A few individuals do have such resources in terms of personal fortunes, and a very few of these have acquired such fortunes in ways that the public at large would find acceptable. But the vast majority have either to engage in businesses that provide massive quick returns – which entails obligations that are not always desirable – or else have to find resources in other ways.
This has contributed to what I still find bizarre, the general acceptance of the principle that Parliamentarians sell off the permits they obtain to buy duty free vehicles. One former opposition Parliamentarian has indeed confessed to this openly, in claiming that he was able to bestow largesse through the sale of his permit. This is not generally considered abhorrent, and certainly I can understand what has occurred, because the expenses now of elections are astronomical. I can claim no credit for not having as yet made use of my permit, because I was fortunate enough to have been appointed on the National List.
It would be absurd then for me to sit in judgment on much better politicians than I am, who have had to work through a wasteful system. And I should add that I sympathize with my colleagues who used to serve as Provincial Councillors, and who are now unable to obtain permits because five years have not elapsed since they got such permits in their previous incarnation. Five years did not lapse between them having to find resources for Provincial Council elections and finding resources for the General Election, and naturally they feel cheated that they should suffer a loss that old hands in Parliament need not endure.
The recent series of articles by Mr Wijeweera on parliamentary and administrative reforms are a welcome feature in the columns of the ‘Island’. I do not propose to discuss here the different ideas he puts forward. Some are similar to those I advanced in a series on parliament that I wrote some months back, some are different, some seem to me unquestionably good, others I would hesitate about. But the details are not the point. What is important is that he has raised several issues, with criticism based on careful argument about current practices.
I can only hope then that authorities in Parliament, in the offices of the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip and the Opposition Whip, will have read these carefully. I am not too certain though that this will happen, and lead to fruitful discussion and reform. However perhaps our quest for improvement will revive now, since we had the benefit recently of a Parliamentary delegation visiting India and finding out about practices in the Indian Parliament.
The visit, and in particular a meeting with the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal, were most enlightening. Our delegation was headed by the Speaker, and included the Chief Whip, though perhaps it is a pity that our own Minister for Parliamentary Affairs was not with us, since I am sure she could have engaged actively with her counterpart to pick up some good ideas.
Most interesting I thought was his description of what are described as Departmentally Related Standing Committees. There are 24 of these, and they deal with subject areas rather than Ministries. They are distinct from the Consultative Committees, which we also have, which are based on Ministries and chaired by the concerned Minister.
The Standing Committees cover areas which come under the purview of different Ministries. Ministers are not permitted to sit on these Committees, which therefore deal with policy matters from a wider perspective. The Minister also noted that these Committees tend to work on a less confrontational basis than happens in Parliament as a whole, and can therefore come up with helpful and generally acceptable proposals.