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Back in Colombo in early April, I went ahead and introduced my proposed 23rd and 24th amendments to the Constitution. During the previous year Vasantha Senanayake and I had discussed proposing some changes, since we felt we had an obligation to make clear the need for reform. He had put forward a Bill then to reduce the size of the Cabinet and was astonished at the reaction. Apart from strong arm tactics from Basil, the President had called him in and told him he was being unduly influenced by me, which made him indignant given his long family commitment to democratic politics. Twice then he withdrew the Bill or rather, as he affirmed since he did not want to close the door completely, postponed it.
With the change of government we had hoped those who had professed commitment to good government would take our proposed reforms on board, but we soon realized they had no interest in details, and those in charge were keen only to transfer power to the Prime Minister. We ourselves were hamstrung by the fact that we were part of the executive and could not therefore move Private Bills, but when I resigned I was free of this constraint. Unfortunately Vasantha had by then passed on the ownership of his Bill to the JVP, which having agreed to move it promptly reneged on the commitment – and I was then unable to move such a Bill myself since only one Bill on a particular subject could be entertained at any one time.
But with some help from the Bills Office I put forward two Bills and presented them in Parliament on April 9th. One was about Electoral Reform, and the other was a principle I thought essential for an independent Public Service, namely that Permanent Secretaries be appointed by the Public Service Commission, not the President. Both Bills were seconded by Pabha, the actress who had been elected on the UNP list for Gampaha, but who had then crossed over in the mass defection to the government that took place early in 2007. She understood little about politics, but was keen to learn, and had an intrinsic commitment to democratic governance. Read the rest of this entry »
My comments on the ridiculous expansion of the Cabinet were carried in the Leader today, expressively edited by the sensible Camela Nathaniel. Ironically they were juxtaposed with those of Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, who was initially responsible for the unwarranted interference by the Prime Minister in my work which led to my resignation. But I don’t suppose he can understand his role in ensuring that the only voice able to challenge the hardline UNP leadership on its own terms was removed.
At a press briefing held in Colombo last week, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said they were totally against the latest appointments. The former regime, Silva said, had maintained a cabinet exceeding 100 members and it was pathetic to see the present government too following the same bad policies. Silva said there was no scientific or logical basis for appointing these ministers. Citing the example of MP Thewarapperuma who represents the Kalutara district in the south, Silva said there was no logical reason for appointing him to develop the Wayamba Province. According to Silva the only reason these appointments were made was to strengthen the President’s power.
President Maithripala Sirisena is facing a split in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and according to Silva he is trying to assert his power in the party by doling out ministerial appointments.
Already the coalition national government of Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has faced criticism and there is some suspicion that the coalition may be in trouble. The UNP rode on the back of Maithripala and vice versa and now Maithripala may be worried, it is surmised, that the UNP is trying to take over. The UNP on the other hand is trying to strengthen its position in the coalition by holding onto the key positions in the government. Although the two main parties decided to come together in a bid to save the country from the tyrannical Rajapaksa regime, these same two parties are now engaged in a power struggle to establish supremacy over each other. Generally a single, more powerful party can shape the policies of the coalition disproportionately. Advocates of proportional representation suggest that a coalition government leads to more consensus-based politics, in that a government comprising differing parties (often based on different ideologies) would need to concur in regard to governmental policy. Another stated advantage is that a coalition government better reflects the popular opinion of the electorate within a country.
Prone to disharmony
However those who disapprove of coalition governments believe that such governments have a tendency to be fractious and prone to disharmony. This is because coalitions would necessarily include different parties with differing beliefs and who, therefore, may not always agree on the correct path for governmental policy.
Commenting on the current status of the national government of Sri Lanka and its waning promises, veteran politician and writer Professor Rajiva Wijesinha said it was sad that the number of ministers was increasing apace, because that destroyed the idea of governance, let alone good governance.
“The President’s manifesto pledged that ‘the number, composition and nature of the Cabinet of Ministers would be determined on a scientific basis’ but as I noticed last year, I was about the only person interested in the manifesto,” Wijesinha said.
The short manifesto pledged a Cabinet of 25 which was ignored too, the number increasing dramatically when SLFP members who had not supported the President were brought in – none of the senior leadership, though, which has contributed to the continuing suspicions of and about the President.
Then, when the 19th amendment was brought, though the idea of statutory limits was introduced, there was a proviso that, in the event of a National Government, the number could be increased. That was destructive, because it implied that a National Government was essentially about jobs for the boys, he added.
According to Professor Wijesinha, when the 19th Amendment was put to the house, some of those now in the Joint Opposition objected to the special clause about possible expansion in the case of a National Government after the next election, but their remedy was to make that exception valid in perpetuity. “I proposed dropping the exception, but that amendment was not taken up, and there was no effort to define the term National Government.” Read the rest of this entry »
Government needs to be accessible to the people. At present however everything militates against this. Laws are formulated in language people cannot understand. They are amended with no effort to ensure that clean copies of the latest version are available for anyone to consult who needs them. Instead you have to go through the original Act and then all the amendments to the Act, Thus, even though the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed three months ago, a consolidated version of the Constitution is still not available.
The President called for one the other day, and could not understand why this had not been prepared already. But our Legal Draughtsman’s Department still works on the old system that developed before computers made production of a consolidated version simple. When I pointed this out five years ago – having asked for the earlier Act that was being amended one day in Parliament, since I thought I should know precisely what I was voting for – I was told that this was the tradition and there was no need to change it.
Fortunately the Secretary General understood the implications of my question and said that a copy of any Act being amended would be available for inspection in the Officials’ Box (he said it would be a waste to give copies to all members, and I fear he was correct). Anyway now that the President has made his view clear, I hope the Department will in future present new Acts as a whole when there are substantive amendments. But I suspect the usual lethargy will take over, and we will go on in the same old way.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks with regard to Good Governance is the confusion in Sri Lanka between the Executive and the Legislature. Such confusion is to some extent unavoidable in countries which have a Westminster system of government, where the heads of the Executive are drawn from Parliament. But in those countries which should be our models if we are to continue with this requirement, there are rules and regulations and customs that prevent the abuse we suffer from in Sri Lanka.
I realized how stringent these rules are when communicating with an old friend who is now a senior member of the British Cabinet. He has been kind enough to respond to emails, but initially one gets an automatic response which makes clear the difference between constituency matters and those pertaining to his portfolio. The former is handled from within the constituency, and there is obviously no question of support for his electoral prospects from within his Ministry.
Personal staff pertaining to Ministry matters are drawn from within the Ministry, as I found out long ago, soon after my university days, when high fliers who had joined the Civil Service (all retired now I fear) were appointed to work with the Minister. But even so, when meetings are held with regard to official matters, it is those within the relevant departments who work with the Minister.
Last 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.
I was surprised to be told recently that the Secretary to the Cabinet Ministry under which I was supposed to work as State Minister of Higher Education had been dismissed. Eran Wickremaratne explained the reasons to me, but I will not go into those since, much as I respect Eran’s own integrity, there may be another side to the story, which reflects less well on the Cabinet Minister than the Secretary.
In particular, after the admission that Kabir Hashim, along with Malik Samarawickrema and the Minister of Finance, had been in the Central Bank to raise the issue of obtaining more money, shortly before Arjuna Mahendran’s fatal decision to take 10 billion by auction, I have my suspicions about what has been going on there. Thankfully, Eran said very clearly that he was not at that meeting and had known nothing about it, which I suspect would be true of the Secretary too.
I did raise with Eran the question of the failure of the 19th Amendment to address a fundamental principle of Good Governance, which is the strengthening of the independence of Public Servants. Certainly there should be provision to dismiss public servants if they do something wrong, but that should not be a political decision, it should be made by the Public Service Commission. And we must go back to the usual practice in parliamentary democracies where Ministers come from within Parliament, which is that Secretaries to Ministries are in effect Permanent, and not changed with every change of government.
In 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’.
In 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.
In the last few articles in this series, I think I should look at how and why the great hopes with which this government was elected have been shattered. I thought this essential because I have read many versions of how the 19th Amendment was passed. Many of the commentaries written in English seem largely designed to place in a bad light those who wanted amendments to the various versions put forward in various ways by government. What is forgotten now is how the Amendment was produced without consultation, in contrast to the promise in the Manifesto of the President.
Since memories are so short, I will note here some important pledges that were completely ignored by the cabal that decided to take charge of the Reform Process
1. Saturday January 10
The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, will take his oath of office
2. Sunday January 11
A Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament, will be appointed with Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister
3. Monday January 12
In order to strengthen democracy, a National Advisory Council will be set up inclusive of representatives of parties represented in Parliament as well as Civil Society organizations.
Monday January 19
Parliament will meet
Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.
Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?
I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.
But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.
I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.
Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?
Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.
I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.