You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Cabinet Ministers’ tag.

qrcode.30227748In 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.

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For each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword

The last few weeks have seen an appalling erosion in the image of the government. In a piece that traced our unfortunate decline from the great military and diplomatic successes of 2009, I had written of cracks within the government, but after that we had two Cabinet Ministers refusing to support the Government in a Vote of Confidence. This is unprecedented, and I believe has never happened in this country before. But there has been total silence from senior members of the government, and I suspect I am the only person who has written to the President pointing out the gross breaches of etiquette that have taken place.

What is ironic is that it is precisely the approach of those two Ministers that has so gravely dented the image of this government. I am not sure if the President has realized this as yet, and I do not suppose that he is in position to analyse the situation carefully. But he must realize now that much of what he has been pushed into doing over the last few years has contributed to the disaster that faces both the country and the government.

I propose in this series to look through what has gone wrong, and indicate the destructive impact of just a few individuals. I am still hopeful that reform is possible, because the President is an able politician, and is still streets ahead of everyone else in terms of popularity. I believe too that there is no one else who can put through a just and generally acceptable solution to the political and ethnic problems that beset us. Vasantha Senanayake put it very well in the interview I had with him on his proposal to amend the Constitution to limit the number of Ministers (available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnO7WuVl6-I0). He said that this President did what was thought the impossible in getting rid of the LTTE. He should also be able then to do what was also thought impossible, namely change the appalling Constitution J R Jayewardene introduced.

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As I have noted, the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that have been sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee are to form the basis of the discussions the Marga Institute is facilitating to promote consensus. The most innovative of the ideas put forward in the memorandum submitted to Parliament is the suggestion that we accept the logic of the Executive Presidential system, and therefore bring the Cabinet in line with the executive system in other countries which have Executive Presidents – the United States and Russia and France and the Philippines, to name but a few.

On a proper Executive Presidential system, unlike the hybrid perversion J R Jayewardene introduced, those put in charge of the different branches of the executive come from outside Parliament. If they are in the legislature, they have to resign their Parliamentary positions, as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry did. Even when the President has a Prime Minister whose tenure depends on the confidence of Parliament, when that Prime Minister has won election and established a majority, he gives up his seat to take up an executive position. And as we saw with Vladimir Putin in Russia, someone who had been elected to Parliament and thereby been chosen as Prime Minister, can easily, and with greater effectiveness, be replaced by a technocrat.

Characteristically, Dayan Jayatilleke opposed the suggestion on the grounds that it would lead to the President filling the executive with his own relations. This was yet another example of an otherwise very distinguished analyst allowing ad hominem arguments to influence his judgment. I should add that his position also fails to take into account the fact that any relations who aspire to executive office will have no difficulty in getting elected, as both our Parliament and many Provincial Councils exemplify. The problem then is that even the very able start making getting re-elected their priority, whereas if Ministers concentrated only on making a success of the areas for which they are responsible, we would have decisions and actions that focus on results rather than popularity.

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Last week the Marga Institute held a discussion on several sets of proposals that had been forwarded to the Parliamentary Select Committee looking into ‘Political and Constitutional Measures to Empower the People of Sri Lanka to Live as One Nation’. After much animated discussion, it was decided to work with the set of proposals put forward by Vasantha Senanayake, and a couple of groups have been established to flesh these out.

Senanayake is perhaps the brightest of the young Members elected newly in 2010, a factor noticed by several embassies that have sent him on delegations of young Members to visit their countries. These proposals sprang from his work with the One Text Initiative which had seen him spearhead a group of Parliamentarians, representing government as well as different opposition parties, who had interacted with members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, both Sinhalese and Tamil, in Britain. They had sent a report on their visit to the President, though there has been no response to the interesting ideas and suggestions they put forward.

Vasantha had worked together with a group of young professionals to put forward the proposals which included some startlingly innovative ideas. Perhaps the most important of them is not however new, because it was one of the principal elements on which three recent documents on constitutional reform agreed, namely those of the Liberal Party, the UNP and the group led by Rev Sobitha. This was the need to get rid of the present system of elections, and I think it would be useful to return to this now, since the last set of elections to Provincial Councils made crystal clear – again – how destructive the current system is.

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Earlier this month the Liberal Party sent some suggestions for reform to the Parliamentary Select Committee meant to recommend solutions to current national problems. They are based on a vital principle that should be followed in all discussions, namely that we should try to assuage the fears of others rather than seek to assert one’s own desires. Through sensitivity to the concerns of others, one can often also ensure sensitivity to one’s own concerns.

Our suggestions reaffirm the primary obligation of the State to fulfil the objectives detailed in Chapter VI of the current Constitution. Safeguarding the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka are vital and all those wishing to broadbase the decision making process should recognize that these principles should be paramount. But equally those concerned with national integrity must also appreciate the importance of decentralizing the administration and affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in national life and in government. National unity should be strengthened by promoting co-operation and mutual confidence, while discrimination and prejudice should be eliminated.

To avoid concentration of power, the doctrine of Separation of Powers should be followed. The different layers of government should be sensitive to the needs of other layers and the People they represent, and this needs to be encouraged by structures that enhance accountability. Some suggestions below need to be entrenched in the Constitution. Others are more appropriately fulfilled through legislation, but the Constitution should direct that such legislation be put in place. I should reiterate here the importance of the first suggestion, since it is little recognized that we have the only Executive Presidential system in the world in which the Executive President is tied down to a Cabinet that is hamstrung by its Parliamentary responsibilities – which means electoral concerns in the main.

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I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.

I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.

That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.

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Coincidentally, after I had written last week about the complications caused by Zonal Education Offices setting termly examination question papers for schools, the Minister of Education himself raised the question at the fortnightly Parliamentary Group Meeting. He was hurt, understandably so, at the harsh criticism of errors in a number of papers set by a number of Zones.

His point was that there were many important things to think about, including obviously, most recently, the introduction of a Technological Stream for major public examinations. This is indeed a laudable development, though I cannot understand why the Ministry does not go further and promote a free mixture of subjects, with greater breadth as is happening in examination systems round the world which are being emulated in more and more countries. But while such innovations are beyond the scope of the Ministry now, given that its officials are stuck – and allowed to stick – in mindsets long superseded elsewhere, we must be thankful for small mercies such as the long overdue recognition of the importance of technology.

I sympathized with the Minister’s irritation, especially when he pointed out that there were only three examinations that were important in a child’s life, namely the Year 5 Scholarship Examination, and the Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations. This is true, though it is a pity that the education system puts so much pressure on children at the age of 10, when putting more energy into ensuring that rural schools provide better services at secondary level too would be more equitable for all children.

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In getting ready material for the consultations I have been having with the young people concerned about constitutional reform, I finally counted up the number of Ministers we have. In fact the figure comes to less than 100, far fewer than the number of Ministers President Jayewardene had in his heyday, with far fewer Members of Parliament, on his side and taken as a whole.

His record included District Ministers too, so that 2/3 of Members of Parliament were Ministers in the eighties, and ¾ of the Government Parliamentary Group. Contrary to the hype of those critics of the current government who have forgotten completely the excesses of the past, things are better now.

But this still does not make them good. It is quite preposterous that Sri Lanka should have 65 Cabinet Ministers (along with 2 Project Ministers) plus 27 Deputy Ministers. In addition there are 4 Monitoring Ministers, as far as I know. This is fewer than I thought, but I realize now that the claim that Members of Parliament were asked to apply for these positions was not correct. I was under the impression, when I was told that I had failed to ask when applications were called, that National List MPs had not been included in the notice, but I find that others were left out too.

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Following the discussion organized by Transparency International on the role of Parliament in reducing corruption, I thought that perhaps there was more I could and should do to strengthen this role. I had been complacent about the fact that I seemed to be the only one writing about the need for action, and urging the Speaker to reconvene the Committee on Standing Orders, to go ahead with the reforms that had been initiated way back in 2010. In this context I was pleased that the Chief Oppositon Whip, who represented the UNP on the Committee, agreed that he should have done more about this, and also that Eran Wickramaratne, who can be relied upon to pursue reforms without partisanship, asked to see the Standing Orders and what had been agreed on already.

But I realized then that I too had been at fault in relying on the Speaker to move, when he has so much else to do. I therefore checked the Standing Orders again, and found that any individual could give a notice of motion for the amendment of the Standing Orders’ and that such a motion ‘when proposed and seconded shall stand referred without any question being proposed thereon to the Committee on Standing Orders’ which meant that that Committee would have to be convened.

I have therefore given notice of such a motion, suggesting changes to several areas in the Standing Orders, including the questions procedure and the manner in which impeachment procedures should be carried out. It may be remembered that it has been universally agreed, on several occasions, that the Standing Orders with regard to impeachment are inadequate, and various commitments have been made about amending them. However, despite the controversy over the recent impeachment of the Chief Justice, which illustrated practically what had previously been seen in the abstract, the matter has been forgotten.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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