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qrcode.30978419One of the promises in the President’s manifesto which was broken was that relating to the Right to Information Bill. The manifesto pledged that the Bill would be introduced on the 20th of February and passed within three weeks. Some sort of leeway was also given, because it was actually a month later, on the 20th of March, that it was pledged the Bill would be passed.

There is no excuse whatsoever for having failed to get this done. True, the Right to Information was incorporated in the Constitution in April, but this needed to be fleshed out through a Bill. Such a Bill was indeed drafted, and circulated at the beginning of April, so I assumed all would be well. I found the draft generally satisfactory, though I suggested some changes to extend its scope, including posting electronically for the information of the public ‘the Declarations of Assets of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Secretaries of Ministries, Chairs of Public Authorities and all officials responsible for contracts or expenditure over the value of Rs 1 million…… Gifts over the value of Rs 500,000 received by such individuals should also be recorded.’

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 qrcode.26591067It is widely agreed that the Executive Presidency has too much power, and those now supporting the common candidate are pledged to reduce this. However , in doing so, they should work on basic political principles, and particularly the doctrine known as the Separation of Powers.

This involves building up the powers of other institutions of State, so that the Executive can be held in check. Such institutions include Parliament as representing the legislative power of the State, and the Judiciary which exercises judicial power. In addition, we need to strengthen the media, and also the public service. This last works for the executive, but it must work on the principle that it is the Constitution and Laws that are supreme, not the instructions of individuals exercising power at any particular period.

All those working for the common candidate must then realize that it will not be enough to go back to the Westminster system. After all we know that the government elected in 1970 and in 1977 both engaged in excesses under the Westminster system. The problem then was the idea that Parliament was supreme, and the fact that Parliament was controlled by the Executive power.

Five measures should then be implemented immediately to ensure that the Executive is subject to constitutional controls.

  1. The first, which is clearly understood, is restriction of the arbitrary power of the President to make appointments. There should be a body to advise on these, and recent experience has shown that it should have provision for representations by the public, and should make clear the rationale for its decisions. If it is made up of elected members, who are not themselves part of the Executive, it should also have veto powers.
  2. There should be limits on the size of the Cabinet (I would suggest 25 at most, though the number could be up to 10 more until the next election). This is essential since it will preclude the Head of the Executive controlling the Legislature by the simple mechanism of adding more and more people to the Executive branch.
  3. The Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department should be brought under the Ministry of Justice, with a proviso that the Minister of Justice should not be involved in electoral politics. In the old days he came from the Senate, but for the present a National List member would be appropriate. The Supreme Court however should not be under the Ministry of Justice, but should be administered by an independent body, with salaries and pensions and privileges not subject to the Executive.
  4. It must be specified that Secretaries to Ministries should be appointed by the Public Service Commission, not by the Cabinet or the President.
  5. Elections, including for Parliament and Provincial Councils and Local Government bodies, should be held at fixed intervals, not at the convenience of the Executive.

 

I would also suggest five measures to ensure that Parliament is strengthened. This means strengthening the powers and prerogatives of Members who are not part of the Executive.

  1. First, the Chairs of the Finance Oversight Committees (the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises) should be Opposition members. The Executive will be required to respond in writing to the reports of these Committees, and give reasons if their recommendations are not obeyed.
  2. There should be no more than 25 Consultative Committees. This should be in line with the number of Ministries, but if there are more during the interim period, business should be combined (ie all education matters together, or lands and agriculture and irrigation etc). There should be a limited number of members in each committee, say about 10, and no Member should belong to more than two committees. The proceedings of these committees should be minuted, and the minutes made publicly available. Ministers should not chair the Committee but should attend meetings to discuss policy and procedures. Only senior officials concerned with policy should attend these meetings.

Such Consultative Committees should deal with general policy matters and finance       and legislation, as laid down in the Standing Orders. There should be opportunities for Members to meet officials in the Ministry to deal with matters of individual concern.

  1. The Petitions and High Post and Standing Order Committees should be chaired by Opposition members and their proceedings should be made publicly available.
  2. All questions must be answered within a month, and Ministers not available to answer questions should explain the reasons for this in writing to the President.
  3. The Standing Orders should promote Bills by Private Members, and there should be a Business Committee of Parliament without involvement of the Executive to schedule such initiatives as well as Adjournment Motions.

Colombo Post 27 Nov 2014 – http://www.colombopost.net/columns/op-ed/item/256-a-reform-agenda-1-reducing-the-power-of-the-executive

download (3)An enormous step forward was taken recently by Parliament, the first with regard to Parliamentary practice since COPE decided to establish Sub-Committees so that it could try to cover all the institutions that came under its purview each year. I can take some credit for this step too, since the Secretary General kindly informed me that this followed on my pointing out to him that the proceedings of Parliamentary Consultative Committees were not available to the public.

Beginning with the proceedings of May 2014, Parliament now issues a Monthly Report that consists of the Minutes of the Consultative Committees. This should in theory be a monthly document, since there are 60 Consultative Committees, all of which should meet every month according to Standing Orders. However there were only 15 sets on minutes, one of which recorded that the meeting was not held since only the Minister and I were present. So there was no quorum, though I should note that we did have a very fruitful discussion, which has been recorded, since the Ministry, that of National Languages and Social Integration, had invited representatives of the Ministries of Education and of Youth Affairs to discuss matters of common interest.

For five other Ministries the minutes had not been confirmed, which I presume means the Ministry has not as yet responded to the draft sent by the Committee Office. 40 Ministries it seems had not met. One excuse made for this lapse is that, given limited space and time, it is not possible for all the Ministries to meet each month. But this will not wash since, given that more than one meeting can be held at a time, and that Parliament sits for 8 days each month, it would easily be possible to cover the whole gamut  if 7 or 8 meetings are held on each sitting day.

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Apart from its failure to pursue Reconciliation with determination and coherence, perhaps the saddest failure of the current government has been with regard to Education. When the Cabinet was being formed in 2010, one of the President’s friends who was pressing hard for me to be appointed Minister of Education was told that they had found a brilliant candidate, namely Bandula Gunawardena. I presume his long experience in giving tuition was thought an appropriate qualification.

It was not taken into consideration that his very livelihood had depended on the failure of the education system to provide good teaching. It was not conceivable then, given that he was not likely to disrupt the livelihoods of those who had toiled alongside him in the industry, that he would prioritize the production and employment of more and better teachers. So indeed it proved. The whole approach of the Ministry in the last four years, in line perhaps with the populist rather than productive interpretation of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has dominated government during this period, was to put up larger and more elaborate buildings in select locations.

The purpose of this became clear when I brought up, at the last meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, the waste of resources in the fact that a well equipped computer laboratory had been put up in a school I knew well in a rural area, but it had remained closed for several months. I had been told that this was because the authorities were waiting for a dignitary to open the place.

Bandula confirmed this, and claimed that it was important for the people to know who had provided such a facility. That this was in fact the people, since the building had been put up and equipped through loans which the people would have to repay, was not something that would have occurred to someone who had made his living by giving tuition in Economics. Nor would he have realized that the adulation expressed in speeches at a formal opening would not have a lasting impact compared with the resentment of students, and their parents, who are bright enough to know when something intended to benefit them is being squandered for political gain.

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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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While I continue to believe improving consultation as well as efficiency at local level should be the most important priority for government, I will interrupt the discussion of appropriate mechanisms for this briefly, to look at a very interesting initiative that was publicized recently. This was the launch of a website called http://www.manthri.lk which grades Members of Parliament with regard to their performance in Parliament. This is an interesting effort which could be very useful to the country, but I felt that there had been a lack of intellectual rigour in preparing the website, and it could thus seem to be designed simply to promote particular politicians.

Prominence was given to Members of the Opposition, which is understandable since the system is based only on Hansard. Obviously there are more opportunities for Members of the Opposition to speak. The exception that proves the rule is that the only government Member within the first five was Dinesh Gunewardena. While he fulfills his functions admirably, the reason he is ranked so highly is that he spends much time on his feet only because other Ministers are not present to answer questions.

If rankings are to be made, then it would make sense to have three distinct categories,

a) Opposition members who have far more time allocated to them proportionately, given their paucity, than those on the Government side

b) Ministers who have to answer questions and obviously get more time in debates than backbenchers

c) Government backbenchers. I hasten to add, since on the common system of argument used in Sri Lanka, it will be assumed I am critical of the method because I come out badly, that in fact I am in the first half of all, and comparatively high amongst my peers. But this surprises me because, having been the first MP on the government side to ask a question and to move an Adjournment Motion in this Parliament, I rarely do this now because answers took so long to come and were not precise – while hardly anyone ever waits in Parliament for the Adjournment motions that take place after regular Parliamentary business.

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I was pleased to find last week a Divisional Secretary who had already put in place consultative mechanisms at village level. I have been suggesting these at other Secretariats, where I found an absence of systems to ensure attention to what people needed. Though some Secretaries seemed to take the ideas on board, I fear they will not be entrenched – and therefore will not be productive – unless clear instructions are issued by the Ministry.

The innovative Secretary was at Dehiattakandiya, where perhaps the difficulties he faces had led to action on the principle of necessity being the mother of invention. He has only 5 Grama Niladharis, for 13 Divisions, which in fact span 46 villages and nearly 60,000 people.

This is preposterous, and I could not understand why action had not been taken earlier to fill up the vacancies. I am assured now that an examination has been held and interviews will be conducted this month and the vacancies filled, but I was bemused that initiating the process had taken so long. However there was a good explanation, in that I gathered there had been a proposal to appoint Samurdhi officials to the post.

That would have been a mistake, since the basis on which those officials had been appointed initially was dubious, and the position of Grama Niladhari requires a certain stature. This is not always present, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the commitment of many of the GNs I have come across, in meetings now at 75 Divisional Secretariats. Were they given clear job descriptions, with a requirement of reporting in writing, I have no doubt that most of them would give excellent service to the people, and also function as the sort of early warning mechanism this country needs to avoid problems such as led to the tragedy at Weliveriya.

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Parliament excelled itself last week when it cancelled three Consultative Committees (of those I had planned to attend – there were others too that were cancelled). The third of these, which I think a vital Ministry though not many others share my views, that of National Languages and Social Integration, was cancelled on the morning of the scheduled day, apparently because the Minister had to go to a funeral outside Colombo.

This did not seem to me proper because, much as Ministers feel obliged to attend funerals, they really should not subject other Members of Parliament to their own convenience. Either they should attend the event at another time, or else they should instruct their Deputies or their Secretaries to go ahead with the meeting. This seems the more urgent, because in any case Committees meet rarely, the plethora of Ministers we have (raised to 69 last week when the Police were entrusted to a newly created Ministry of Law and Order) making it impossible to respect the Standing Order enjoining meetings once a month.

If my proposed Amendments to Standing Orders are accepted and implemented, this problem will be solved, but I gather that, the Speaker being away, the motion was not taken up at the Parliamentary Business Committee. Since Parliament is going to meet on only two days in September, it looks like I will now have to wait a month and more, though I have pleaded with both the Speaker and the Leader of the House to take the matter up in early September. Since statutorily the matter is not debated but simply referred to the Committee on Standing Orders, this will take up hardly any time, so I hope Party Leaders will agree to this.

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I make no apologies for returning yet again to the question of language rights. As I noted after my last visit to the North, for a series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, this remains one of the principal bones of contention in the Jaffna District. But it need not be, because the principles we should all be acting on are now clear, following the inclusion of Tamil as an official language in the constitutional reforms of 1987, and the fleshing out of those principles in the last couple of decades.

First, under President Kumaratunga, there were more inclusive language learning policies in schools in the nineties and then, most importantly, under this government, Minister D E W Gunasekara introduced language norms for public servants. I was not sure how well this was working so, at the previous meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages, I asked for a report on pass rates. We got this at the February meeting – or rather I did, and I had to point out that questions I raised were asked for the general benefit, not my own, so information should be shared with all my colleagues on the Committee.

I can see this might seem a waste of paper, since almost never do more than a quarter of the 31 members meant to be on the Committee attend, and many of those who do are concerned only with individual problems; but the principle was affirmed, and the Minister will now ensure that information is shared with at least all those who do attend. This is important, for this is something we should all be concerned with, as legislators and contributors to national policy.

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Last week saw yet another example of the slow erosion of systems that makes justice so alien a concept for our people. In Parliament we received yet another Bill cointaining amendments to a previous Bill.  It will be taken up only later, so I was not surprised that the original Bill was not available, since anyone interested could look it up in the interim in the Parliament Library. But once again I found that the notes at the side of the document, which are supposed to sum up the content of each clause, simply noted that the clauses were amendments to previous clauses.

The summing up, I should note, had been included at the beginning of the Bill. This does not happen always, so one should be thankful that this time at least anyone looking at the Bill could find out at a glance what was happening where. But I fail to understand why a custom designed for convenience, to allow anyone looking at the Bill to see immediately the impact of each clause, is now ignored. The only place where it still prevails is in the last two clauses of the Bill, where a note on the side tells us exactly what is in the Bill itself. One notable piece of information thus highlighted is that, where versions of the Bill in different languages are different, the Sinhala text shall prevail.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2017
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