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qrcode.31050227By giving parties the right to expel members from Parliament, Jayewardene destroyed an important principle of parliamentary democracy—the independence of members of parliament. The main justification of parliament is that it acts as a check on the executive. In the British system members of the ruling party generally support the government, but they are free to criticise and question it. Turning them into mere lobby fodder, programmed to support the government under any circumstances, makes them redundant.

In Sri Lanka, as time passed, MPs realised that they could invoke the authority of the Supreme Court against arbitrary expulsions. But such a move set them in a position of hostility against the party. This usually meant they had to cross over to the opposition if they wanted to assert their independence even on a single issue. So Sri Lanka has been deprived of one of the great benefits of the parliamentary system, which in other countries allows members who think on similar political lines to maintain basic loyalty to their party while criticizing anything they find aberrant. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, any dissent leads to oppositioning. So it is rare to find members willing to express different opinions, which happens usually  only if sufficiently large numbers could be brought together for a change of government. But since most parliamentarians are not likely to change loyalties on appeals of conscience alone, financial incentives and promises of future office would have to be used to lure them. Instances of this approach have occurred recently, leading at the end of 2001 to a premature election.

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qrcode.30693280An ambassador who seems to understand this country well said recently that he thought the greatest mistake this government had made was to let me go. I have to admit though that that was probably more flattering than accurate.  One can see rather that the greatest mistake was to ignore completely the manifesto on which the President had won the election, and instead assume it was about two things and two things alone – the abolition of the Executive Presidency and having an election after 100 days.

Unfortunately now the government will be remembered for just two things, one the laudable reduction in the authoritarian powers of the Presidency, the second the Central Bank Bond Scam. But there was much else in the manifesto that could easily have been implemented in the almost six months which the government had before Parliament was dissolve.

I have already looked at the seven broken promises with regard to reform that were mentioned in the 100 day programme, viz

1)      Electoral Reform

2)      Amendment of Standing Orders

3)      The Right to Information Act

4)      The new Audit Act

5)      A Code of Conduct

6)      A Cabinet of not more than 25 members representing all political parties in Parliament

7)      A National Advisory Council including all political parties in Parliament

The last three of these did not require a Parliamentary majority, and three of the others could have been passed with a simple majority. But the failure to develop consensus on issues of common national interest, and instead concentrate on Ministries for one party, and the perks that went with these, led to disaster.

Those blunders are obvious. For the next couple of weeks I shall look at some of the excellent ideas in the manifesto that were completely ignored. The total failure of this government to entrench better systems of government, based on ideas that had been canvassed for a long time but which had not been taken forward, must be registered, and I hope the government elected in August will move swiftly on such matters.

One of the most innovative ideas in the manifesto occurred in the section entitled ‘An advanced and responsible public sector’.  The second bullet point there read, ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.’

Though I used the word innovative, in fact this represents a recognition of reality. A hundred years ago, when the British began to think of appointing Sri Lankan Government Agents, the Province was obviously the practical unit of administration. But as populations grew and the business of government expanded, the District became more important and accordingly Government Agents were appointed to Districts too. Now however, with so much more to do and for so many more people, it is the Divisional Secretariat that has to initiate and oversee action in most particulars. Unfortunately we are still stuck in hidebound systems, and Divisional Secretaries do not have the decision making powers they need. In addition, many government departments are not well represented in the Division, which leads to long delays with regard to action, let alone decisions.

After the problems I had noted in the North and East, I discussed the matter with those with experience in the field including the immensely knowledgeable Asoka Gunawardena and the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Mr Abeykoon, who is now the Secretary to the President. We then approached the UN, which set up a consultancy, and last year we got a comprehensive report from Asoka on ‘Improving Service Delivery in the Divisions’. Unfortunately, when the election season set in, the Secretary put the matter on hold. Though Karu Jayasuriya was initially keen to take things forward, it turned out that he was not the responsible Minister, given the manner in which Public Administration had been carved up. I did mention the matter to the Minister responsible, but such reforms are not really his concern, and in the mad rush for elections the matter had been forgotten.

After the election I hope a concerted effort will be made to move forward in this area. It is important to make sure however that this is done with provision to consult the people, something the last President pledged which was not done. Mr Abeykoon had set the process in motion, through a circular that instructed Grama Niladharis to chair the Civil Defence Committee meetings in their GN Divisions, but this has not really taken off. Clear instructions are needed as to how the ideas brought up at consultative meetings should be taken forward (something that can be improved in Parliament too, where minutes are not promptly circulated and action points rarely recorded). This was planned, but elections intervened.

At the last meeting of the Home Affairs Consultative Committee in Parliament, this being the Ministry entrusted with District and Divisional Administration, I brought the matter up, only to find that the Minister and the new Secretary knew nothing about this. They had not been briefed, but the Minister promised to look into the matter, and I hope that he will find some time during electioneering to at least ensure that a position paper is prepared for him, or for his successor.

Meanwhile, nothing has been done in the last couple of years with regard to the other area of governance that is closest to the people. I refer to the work of elected officials, namely the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha and his team. At present their functions are confused, because there have been significant changes in the manner in which these are organized – utilities for instance are supposed to be their responsibility, but both water and electricity require much central government involvement.

Because of all this a new Local Government Act was being prepared, and with the blessings of the Minister, the Secretary gave me a copy of the draft for comment. I found it a great improvement on what we have now, but thought there should be entrenchment of consultation procedures, with the advisory committees to local bodies being composed of representatives of community organizations, not appointees of those in political authority.

The Secretary, one of the brightest of our Civil Servants, Mr Ranawaka, took the ideas on board, but he was then entrusted with other responsibilities and the Act seemed to have been forgotten. But if good governance is to become a reality, the next government should study the current situation, with the help of Asoka Goonewardene’s comprehensive report, and set in place systems to ensure that people have ready access to the services government should provide at local level.

CA

Chanaka Amaratunga died 19 years ago, on the 1st of August 1996. He died a disappointed man, for he had not entered Parliament, which had been his dream. Only Chanaka, imbued in the Westminster style of Liberal Democratic politics, could have written an article entitled ‘In Praise of Parliament’ at a time when the Executive Presidency was well entrenched in Sri Lanka, and the tradition of the independent Parliamentarian long lost.

qrcode.30571558He had hoped to enter Parliament in 1988, when he was on the SLFP National List, but the defeat of the SLFP then had led to the sidelining of Anura Bandaranaike, who had been his great friend. He told me that, when he went to Rosmead Place on the day after the election, Sunethra had met him with the claim that the only hope for the party now was to bring Chandrika back. He had said this was nonsense, and that perhaps put paid to his chances. After her defeat, Mrs Bandaranaike too felt that the policies Anura had promoted had been a mistake, and moved back to the left.

Anura still had residual support, but he was soft-hearted to a fault, and gave up the Secretaryship of the party when he was appointed to the post on a split decision. The newspapers at the time reported that his mother had stormed out of the room, and he had followed her, and agreed to a compromise whereby Dharmasiri Senanayake became Secretary. The latter worked for Chandrika, and as we know she came back and took over. By then, though, it should be noted that Sunethra was supportive of her brother and when, forgetting the change that had taken place, I asked her what her sister was up to, she told me that she was trying to throw ‘my darling brother’ out of the party.

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Political Principles 4This is a much misunderstood doctrine, and I fear that ignorance of the principle will lead to reform of the current constitution in a disastrous manner. When there was a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, the more unsavoury elements in the UNP immediately declared that it would be replaced by an Executive Prime Ministership.

That is an absurd idea, but I found even Jayampathy Wickremaratne dogmatically declaring that an Act was being prepared to made such a transfer immediately. I argued against this strongly, first on the grounds that it would play straight into the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He, and my friend Dayan Jayatilleka, were arguing that a vote for Maithripala Sirisena would amount to a vote to put Ranil Wickremesinghe in power. Had Jayampathy unveiled his draft Act as he claimed was necessary, the government would have made mincemeat of the opposition campaign.

My second point was I felt even more important, namely that it would be immoral to ask people to vote for Maithripala Sirisena only to transfer power immediately into the hands of someone who would never have been elected on his own merits. It is to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credit that he recognized this. When I spoke to him shortly before the Sirisena candidature was announced, I confirmed that the Liberal Party would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, but I added that we could not support Ranil either. The reason I gave was that he simply could not win, and he immediately agreed and said that was why he had tried to persuade President Kumartunga to come forward.

That confirmed my view that Ranil, though able enough with regard to economic discipline, was simply no judge of people – as the appointments he makes testify, culminating in the selection of Tissa Attanayake as General Secretary of the UNP. I told him then that Chandrika would do even worse than he would, and we had to hope for someone more acceptable to the nation to emerge. I think we both knew by then that Maithripala Sirisena would indeed emerge, but we respected confidentiality and left it at that.

What we now have then is ideal, with Maithripala Sirisena as President and Ranil working under him as Prime Minister. But I have realized, from the manner in which the Cabinet has been constituted, that Ranil has thought of electoral considerations first, and this is no way to run a country. It is for that reason that, in the reforms we are engaged in, we must understand basic principles of constitutionality. I therefore present here only the section on the Separation of Powers from my book –

In a few countries, such as the United States, the executive and the legislature are almost wholly independent of each other. This is in accordance with the doctrine of Separation of Powers, put forward by Montesquieu, a political theorist of the eighteenth century. Montesquieu believed that the people would suffer if any one individual or institution had absolute power. Therefore, he advocated that the legislature (the body responsible for making the laws) should function independently from the executive (the body responsible for implementing the laws). These ideas were followed during the drafting of the American Constitution in the 1780s.

 

Sri Lanka, along with many other countries, follows the British model which does not separate the executive from the legislature. In Britain, the king initially had absolute power. He ruled with the help of a cabinet appointed according to his wishes. Gradually however parliament developed a rival authority and it became customary for the king’s first minister to obtain the support of parliament. Then, during the nineteenth century, it was established that the king could not appoint a candidate as prime minister unless he had the confidence of parliament. Now, after a parliamentary election, the monarch invites the leader of the party which has a majority in parliament to form the government.

This in effect means that the prime minister, who runs the executive branch, also controls parliament. Earlier MPs felt that their main responsibility was to the people who had elected them and therefore they often challenged the executive on specific issues, even if they broadly supported it. Now however with allegiance to a party being considered more important than the interests of the nation or the people one represents, even parliamentarians who have no executive position do not normally challenge their party leader when he or she is prime minister. In countries like Sri Lanka, it is almost impossible to question the party members in the executive and remain in the party. Read the rest of this entry »

Political Principles 1Some years back Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a slim volume I wrote entitled ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’. I prepared this because I had been horrified at the lack of awareness even in students of political science of basic political principles. When we were revising syllabuses at Sabaragamuwa, I realized that the political science syllabus was moribund, with nothing that had been published in the seventies or later on the reading lists. The person in charge seemed to have no knowledge of John Rawls, or the seminal contribution of his ‘Theory of Justice‘ to political thought – and I began to understand then the comment of President Kumaratunga at our first Convocation, when she talked about Sri Lanka being the only country where the frogs in the well were digging themselves deeper and deeper into the ground.

This approach to life seemed to have become endemic at Peradeniya, with little added to learning or thought after the seventies. This has contributed to a very passive approach to the subject, with outdated theory being the focus of attention rather than the actual processes of government. Thus, when I addressed a meeting recently for the common opposition candidate in Kandy, I was startled to find a very formulaic approach to the question of the Executive Presidency, with no attention being paid to the very practical problems created by the particularly perverse form J R Jayewardene had introduced.

But this had started earlier, with the sycophantic celebration of the Jayewardene constitution presented in ‘The Gaullist Constitution of Sri Lanka’, written by a supposedly great scholar, A J Wilson. I am sure Wilson had his plus points, but he failed completely to analyse the crucial contradiction in Jayewardene’s approach, which was to impose a Presidential system on the Westminster Parliamentary model. Sadly no scholar in our universities, as far as I know, has analysed the implications of this for the doctrine of the Separation of Powers, which is the main reason for an Executive Presidency. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily FTThe incident he faced as State Minister of Higher Education regarding the removal of the UGC Head and Faizer Mustapha’s resignation as State Minister of Aviation will not negatively impact the 100-day program but is a wakeup call for the whole alliance to realise that it needs to be more serious, says Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily FT, he also noted that the alliance gave a specific deadline to the people and there were very important pledges that it had done nothing about. “People are expecting us to fulfil these within the mentioned deadlines. We are here to respond to people and we must do so quickly,” he added.

However, Wijesinha emphasised that the pledge of abolishing the executive presidency shouldn’t be fulfilled since it was something that required a lot of consideration and it was important to ensure that what was put in its place would be acceptable to the people at large.

Following are excerpts:

Daily FT interview 20 Feb 2015Q: What is the conflict between you and Higher Education Minister Kabir Hashim?

A: Kabir took some action while I was away which I thought was totally inappropriate. I think Kabir should have consulted me. However, he has been very gracious about expressing the error involved. But the bottom line is that I know that this will go on.

If ‘A’ doesn’t give the right answer, they go to ‘B’. If one person is clearly in charge and then there is another person is also there, anyone who doesn’t get a good answer from ‘A’ will go to ‘B’. If technically ‘A’ is under ‘B,’ it is impossible for ‘A’ to actually carry out his work. I have told Kabir that this cannot go on like this. He too agreed and said that he would tell the Prime Minister to appoint me as a Cabinet minister. That would make a lot of sense and I hope that it will happen.

Q: Are you saying your action was not against the removal of the UGC Chairman but was purely based on error in protocol?

A: We are going to engage in what we call good governance. You must not do things that are contrary to every single principle of good governance. People ask me why I am defending the UGC Chairman. It is not a question of my defending her. It is a question of two fundamental principles of governance being breached.

The first is, very simply, Kabir should not have taken any decision affecting my work without telling me. The second fact is that, if they wanted to respond to allegations against the UGC Chairman, there should have been an investigation with due process. Rather interestingly Kabir told me there was lot of pressure from FUTA and that is why he went ahead with it. I told Kabir that he should not give into pressure. One of our biggest complaints against the UGC Chairman was that she had given into pressure. If we are going to do things simply because there is immense pressure from other parties, how are we any better than what we claim she was?

Q: But FUTA has been against the appointment of UGC Chairman and it was one of their conditions when supporting Maithripala Sirisena.

A: I know nothing about such a condition. Don’t forget that I translated the manifesto and there was nothing of that sort there. In any case, if you are going to remove anyone, you need to do it through due process.

Let me give you an example; they now claim that I know what the allegations are. But no one has given me any of the allegations except one professor who wrote a long email to me in which he basically mentioned all kinds of negative things about the UGC Head, such as she is the worst person in the system and a strong supporter of President Rajapaksa. I wrote back asking to send me those allegations systematically because I cannot carry out an investigations based on an email with someone’s own private grievances. He didn’t come back to me. How can anyone expect me to carry out any investigations without a proper complaint?
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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

downloadSeveral papers, though interestingly enough not all, carried accounts last week of the failure of Vasantha Senanayake to propose the Constitutional Amendment that stood in his name on the Order Paper of Parliament on September 25th. It was not however registered that he had not withdrawn the motion, which was to introduce statutory limitations on numbers in the Cabinet. He merely postponed it, while meanwhile requesting government to set up a Committee to go into that and other constitutional amendments he had proposed.

It seemed to me a pity that he had not gone ahead with the motion, not least because of the enthusiasm with which government members had greeted it on the day. One government MP came up to congratulate him, and was deeply disappointed to be told that he would not be proposing it that day. Even more surprisingly, a Cabinet Minister, albeit a particularly honest and honourable one, told me it was a very good idea. And the enthusiasm of the opposition also took the form of recognition of their own inadequacies, for Ravi Karunanayake, who had proposed something of the sort through a Private Members Motion, granted that it was much more effective to put forward a Bill.

Ravi indeed has contributed to the contumely in which Private Members Motions are held, by proposing hundreds of varying importance, which has contributed to Fridays becoming a day to avoid Parliament. And it is a mark of the lack of awareness about Parliamentary practice in those who pass for senior Parliamentarians that it was a first time member who registered the importance of putting forward a Bill, instead of adding through a Motion to the tedium of Fridays. That day in Parliament is now largely the preserve of Ravi and of his great rival Buddhika Pathirana, along with legions of the dead (obituaries being the other main subject of discussion on Fridays, apart from the motions of the dynamic duo).

The assumption in the press was that Vasantha had been pressed by the UPFA leadership into withdrawing the motion. This had indeed happened earlier, for he had put forward the Bill some months ago, but on that occasion the President had spoken to him and, in talking about his bright future, persuaded him not to put it on the agenda. I suppose it is because I do not have a future that I would have sought some sort of commitment from His Excellency to encourage debate and discussion on the matter, but I can understand someone of Vasantha’s age believing that that would not be the end of the matter. Read the rest of this entry »

There are two reasons why I find ridiculous the constant assertion that the Executive Presidency must be abolished. This was made most recently by the most prominent member of the Human Rights Commission, who claimed that it was the root cause of all our problems. But I do not think that he, or all the others who parrot panaceas, have thought about what will replace it.

And the problem with such panaceas is that no effort is made to actually make the current situation better, as for instance the Human Rights Commission could do in its own area of responsibility, by taking forward the Bill of Rights. There is an excellent draft, which we managed to get done before the Ministry of Human Rights was abolished. But the Minister did not agree that it should be put forward, given the then concentration on elections, and since then it has languished. I suspect I am the only who who has even reminded the President of its existence, and the fact that it was prepared in fulfilment of a pledge in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya. His answer was that he did not agree with everything there, but the simple solution, to admit those elements, was obviously not thought satisfactory.

With regard to the Presidency, it is assumed that we can go back straight away to the Westminster system. But the Westminster system demands a functioning Parliament, and with the complete dysfunctionality of the current Parliament, we will have even greater chaos if it had supreme power. Even now, Parliament does not fulfil the role laid down for it in our Presidential constitution, which is one reason why the Executive has nothing to check it.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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