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I wrote last week about the need to have a Parliament in which members could fulfil their legislative role more effectively. But, in addition to changes in the electoral system, we need for this purpose to ensure that Parliamentarians have a better understanding of that role.

Essentially Parliament has two principal functions. One is with regard to laws, inasmuch as it is Parliament that formulates and passed laws. But, since laws pertain to particular functions, which are fulfilled by the Executive Branch, it is necessary for Parliamentarians to understand what those functions are.

Sadly the principal contact that Parliamentary practice in Sri Lanka now provides is used to discuss particular issues relating to constituencies, and to request resources for constituency purposes. There is hardly any discussion of policy. In any case the manner in which Parliamentarians are allocated to Committees, and the large numbers involved (many of whom do not attend, as I have found in waiting for a quorum to be made up), mean that policy discussions are rare.

The large number of Ministries we have – some of which have hardly held Consultative Committee meetings – mean that policy making is complicated, since so many different agencies are involved. The absurdity of pretending that Parliament can actually monitor the work of so many Ministries has been made manifest by the manner in which this year, twice the number of Ministries as last year have been put into a job lot for Committee Stage discussion during the Budget debate. Read the rest of this entry »

Presentation at a meeting on the COPE Report arranged by Women for Good Governance, Sri Lanka, January 30th 2012

This is the second panel discussion on the COPE Report that I have been invited to in less than a week, so I thought I should not repeat myself, in case any of you had been at the other event. However, I have brought a few copies of my presentation then, and it is available on my blog

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.

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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.

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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.

Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal - Minister for Parliamentary Affairs

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.

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Over the last few weeks I have been looking at ways in which Parliament might be made more effective in fulfilling its main functions. The fairly simple administrative changes that would help include

a)      Strengthening the financial oversight committees of Parliament, by ensuring swift follow up to their deliberations, and also consultation with executive authorities to promote suggested reforms.

b)      Improving the system of Consultative Committees, perhaps by distinguishing different areas for policy to be formulated, to be then implemented across a range of related Ministries (or Departments if the Cabinet is reduced in size).

c)       Streamlining private business mechanisms by ensuring better focused questions and adjournment motions, while also developing a system of priorities for private business motions.

All these would however require a more dedicated approach by Members of Parliament. For this purpose better familiarization mechanisms should be devised. The basic training now given to new Parliamentarians deals with administrative matters but, to promote greater professionalism with regard to the business of Parliament itself, it may be best to have intensive group trainings. These could concentrate on different fields according to the particular concerns of the groups – ie a group that is concerned with financial oversight, another concerned with mechanisms for redress for the public, another looking at policy formulation with regard to the main functions of the state (Justice, Finance, Foreign Relations and Trade, Security, Agriculture and Lands, Industry and Commerce, Public Works, Local Government, Social Services, Energy and the Environment).

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In addition to Consultative Committees for each Ministry, Parliament has another range of Committees, some intended to facilitate administration, others supposed to contribute to the core functions of Parliament. Amongst these last is the Committee on Public Petitions, related to the work of the Ombudsman, who is officially called the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. He is supposed, on behalf of Parliament, to look into administrative injustices, and ensure redress.

Unfortunately the Ombudsman has not been especially effective in Sri Lanka. Initially direct access to him was not permitted, and the public had to present petitions to Parliament, which could either deal with these themselves, or send them to the Ombudsman. Later it was decided that the public could access him direct. In both cases however the problem is that the Ombudsman has no statutory powers. He can only report to Parliament, which then has to take action. Since however action has to be taken with regard to Ministries, and since many Ministers – or their officials – are unwilling to have their actions reversed, remedial action is often not possible.

An imaginative Ombudsman could sometimes achieve a compromise, using the threat of invoking adverse procedures in Parliament to persuade officials to offer some sort of redress. But this requires close knowledge of the system, which most holders of the position have not possessed. Thus, while petitions continue to come in abundance to Parliament, these too do not often lead to petitioners being satisfied that justice has been done.

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As we have seen, Members of Parliament do not have much of a role to play in the initiation of legislation, which is largely left to the Executive. The same is true of the second principal responsibility of parliamentarians, namely the budget. Formulation of that too is left almost wholly to the Executive. In neither case can we say however that this is inappropriate, since on the whole laws and regulations and financial provision require an expertise that Members of Parliament not involved in departmental duties cannot possess.

In other countries however a distinct role remains in terms of private members’ bills, as well as questions and adjournment motions, through which the occasional significant contribution can be made to discussion of important issues and thus, one hopes, to national policy too. In Sri Lanka however none of these seem now to serve much general purpose.

With regard to private members bills, unfortunately we have an old tradition that such bills are taken up in the order in which they are proposed. Thus an enterprising member can stuff up the space for such bills by putting forward a dozen and more at the very inception of a parliamentary session.

When these bills are clearly intended to score debating points, with no real concern to promote reform, they end up being of no interest to anybody, except possibly the person who proposed them. Thus the first private bill before Parliament in the current session is one that criticizes the assumption by the President of particular portfolios. Since such an assumption is explicitly provided for in the current constitution, and since all previous Presidents have taken on various portfolios, it is apparent that the bill is not really serious. Even the opposition recognizes this, for the bill has hardly been debated, the Chief Opposition Whip working together with government members to ensure that there is no quorum when it is taken up.

So the Sri Lankan Parliament is in the sorry state of not having concluded even one private members bill as yet, almost a year after Parliament was convened. Sadly the same philosophy seems to be followed with the vast majority of Parliamentary questions, another tool that should be used to ensure accountability on the part of the Executive. A large number of questions do not address policy issues, but are used to draw attention to information of a parochial nature.

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Earlier this year I was asked by Parliamentary officials to contribute to a journal that the Research division of Parliament proposed to publish. It was to deal with Policy Issues in the Post-Conflict Era. Articles were supposed to be of around 2000 words in length, which made sense since I assume they wish to accommodate as many Members of Parliament as possible. I felt obliged then to try to put something down, though clearly one would not be able to cover as much ground as one would like to within such limits.

Being spurred to think about such matters, and to write, was however salutary, and it struck me then that perhaps this could be a topic for a series of articles to follow on the literature series I had contributed to the ‘Island’. I don’t know whether the role of Parliament in terms of seeking good governance would be a generally popular topic, but I thought it worth trying to put down some ideas in a comprehensive manner. For the next few weeks therefore, as an interlude before some other literary topics, I plan to discuss what a Parliament should be, and why we have not succeeded in getting from our legislature the service the country needs.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2020
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