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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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A group of young people, including a few politicians, have been working recently on suggestions for Constitutional Reform following the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The brief of that Committee is wide and, even though efforts were made to hijack it, and turn it into a vehicle to amend the 13th Amendment, the Chairman stood firm and made it clear that the terms of reference as laid down by those who proposed the Committee should stand.

I have no doubt that, despite the omission of perspectives that are more common in the country and in Parliament than extreme views on either side, there are enough persons on the PSC who will ensure that the commitments that country and the President have entered into will be upheld. However I suspect the Committee will deliberate for a very long time, and a lot of problems that it would be very simple to resolve will only get worse.

I welcome therefore what I see as a Youth Initiative, and have been impressed by the systematic way in which they are proceeding. They have used as a basic text a comparison which has been made of the three recent comprehensive proposals for Constitutional Reform that have been published. The first of these – as usual, I am tempted to say – was that of the Liberal Party, and this was followed this year by the proposals of the UNP as also those of a group led by the Rev Omalpe Sobitha.

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Transparency International recently held a workshop on how Parliamentarians could contribute to reducing corruption. Though it was mainly opposition members who attended, government too was represented, in the form of Rev Athureliya Rathana of the JHU, as well as Thilanga Sumathipala, Vidura Wickramanayake and Manusha Nanayakkara, apart from myself.

Much discussion centred around the oversight role of Parliament, following an informative introduction by former Auditor General Mayadunne. He noted that Parliamentary questions should be an important tool of ensuring financial probity, while there were several forms of Committees that could also do much to reduce corruption. Unfortunately, as almost all speakers noted, questions have little impact, since there are innumerable delays in answering most questions of consequence – while even more seriously, the Committee system in Parliament has almost completely collapsed.

We tried to correct the former problem in what proved the abortive attempt by the Committee on Standing Orders to amend them. With the full approval of the Speaker, we planned to introduce a provision that made prompt answers to questions mandatory, with a requirement that the Speaker call on the head of the Executive for remedial action if there were delays. Unfortunately this, like all our other suggestions, fell by the wayside when the Consultant Parliament had hired behaved foolishly, and drew an equally excessive reaction from a member.

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The manner in which our Executive is constituted ensures that administrative or professional capacity are not taken seriously when portfolios are allocated. Of course many Members of Parliament have skills that will allow them to contribute to formulating policy and making decisions, but that is not a prerequisite. Given too the need to continue in Parliament by ensuring popularity in their electorates, Ministers naturally see their constituency responsibilities as more important than the claims of the Ministerial responsibilities they are given.

I suppose this is a necessary part of the Westminster system, but in Britain and other countries where that system continues, there are systems to ensure that capable people with understanding of the ministries to which they are appointed can also be selected. Most countries having a Westminster style system, of allocating portfolios to Parliamentarians, have a second chamber to which proven administrators can be appointed – as with for instance Manmohan Singh or Kapil Sibal in India. In addition, on a first past the post system, competent people can be allocated safe seats, and do not have to worry unduly about electoral considerations in fulfilling their Ministerial responsibilities. And some countries such as Thailand have gone beyond this, in allowing for portfolios to also be filled by those with proven executive capacity without them having to enter Parliament.

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After the recent fiasco over the delay in providing Members of Parliament with bills they were supposed to discuss and vote on, I engaged in some study of practice here and in other countries, and also referred to relevant authorities. What became clear is that Sri Lanka has in essence taken away from Parliament its power over legislation, and the neglect the Speaker diagnosed in Parliamentary officials, claiming that he would have taken firm action if he had the power to do so, is not seen by them as neglect. They see Parliamentarians simply as lobby fodder, fulfilling their functions simply by speaking and voting for or against a Bill, with no responsibilities to actually ensure that Parliament produces fit and proper legislation.

I say this because a former Secretary General of Parliament has written a book which is supposed to set out the functions of Parliament, in which the chapter on making laws completely omits the role of Parliamentarians. Indeed she even claims that Bills are usually given to Parliamentarians after what is termed the First Reading – when they are placed before Parliament. She has obviously not understood that the First Reading takes place precisely when Parliamentarians have the Bill placed before them, and to see that as a sought of afterthought is a complete denigration of the Legislature as it is constituted, by Representatives of the People.

The book in question is handed out as a sort of bible to new Parliamentarians, but I suspect no official in Parliament has actually studied it and set it against what goes on in other Parliaments. Perhaps no one there now has either the capacity or the inclination to engage in such studies, given the contumely with which J R Jayewardene treated Parliament and Parliamentarians when he imposed the current Constitution on the country, and also its several amendments, which subverted any possible principles the Constitution may have contained.

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I wrote last week about Parliamentary Consultative Committees and the role they should play with regard to legislation. But there is more that they should do, in helping the Executive develop policies and monitor their implementation.

The hopelessness however of expecting them to fulfil these tasks came home to me when, the morning after I got back, I received notice of a meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, and was rung up also by the Secretary to the Committee Office, urging me to attend. It is possible she does this for all members, but I doubt it, because she mentioned again that no one else on the Committee had commented on the proposals for Education Reform that have been discussed in a Special Parliamentary Committee for over two years now.

They had not commented a few months back when a penultimate draft had been circulated, and they have not commented now, when a final draft has been sent out to all of us for comment. I will continue to hope, as I think she does, that something from someone else will come in before the 15th of January, which is the deadline, but I doubt it.

One of the problems is the manner in which the Committees are constituted. The copy of the Standing Orders distributed to MPs when Parliament was convened in 2010 was printed in 1993, and notes that Committees should have not more than 12 members. This has now been changed and all Committees now have 21 members. The Standing Orders I have say that ‘No Member shall serve in more than one Consultative Committee unless the Selection Committee decides to the contrary’, but either the Selection Committee has made several decisions to the contrary or else the Standing Order has been changed. I am supposed to serve on 7 Consultative Committees, including the Committee on Civil Aviation, about which I have no ideas at all.

I don’t think the Selection Committee has been at all serious in constituting Consultative Committees, but in mitigation I should add that it would be impossible for the Committee to be serious about this job, given that it has to allocate 21 members to each of 60 odd Committees. What would be much more sensible is to ask MPs to apply to Ministers for membership of their Committees, and for Ministers to propose a small Committee of the truly committed who could meet on a regular basis to discuss issues in an informed manner. For meaningful discussion the Committee should have not more than ten members. Read the rest of this entry »

Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University - January 20th 2013

In the first section of this talk I spoke about the confusion in Sri Lanka between the Executive and the Legislature. Flowing from a system in which expansion of the Executive is seen as the easiest way of ensuring a Parliamentary majority, we have overlapping Ministries. We have however failed to institutionalize systems of coordination, both within the executive branch and also within Parliament which is supposed to exercise oversight and contribute to policy formulation.

We have also failed to promote coordination of activities between the different levels of government, or between different branches at the same level. As it is, we have a very confusing Constitution that entrusts several responsibilities to Provincial administrations but then gives authority also to the Central government. This is because we have what is termed a Concurrent List, which is nothing but concurrent because in the event of disagreement the will of the Central government prevails; and dual responsibilities at provincial and local level. It is also because the Centre is given responsibility for National Policy on all subjects, but we have failed to conceptualize this clearly and to spell it out in legislation.

I have become more acutely aware of the problem in my role as Convenor of the Task Force meant to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. It is important to make policy changes in accordance with the plan, but ensuring acceptance of these and relevant action at all levels will not be easy. In particular, while we should not duplicate action, and should leave this to local agencies which are best equipped to cover all geographical areas, we must ensure monitoring, and that is best done through a Central agency to ensure uniformity. However our legal officials have still not entrenched a system of legislation that makes clear the primacy of National Policy and the obligation of the Central government to ensure its implementation, while leaving implementation to other levels of government. I should add that they have also completely failed to ensure conformity with the 13th amendment in much legislation that has entered the statute books in the last two decades, while this has also been ignored in various administrative decisions taken by Central government.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the Province, while it should remain the unit that exercises responsibility for both regulations with regard to devolved subjects and for executive action in those areas, is too large for the consultation and accountability that make devolution meaningful. We should therefore be building up local government institutions, but at present these are not given sufficient authority, while they suffer staff shortages that prevent effective action in many vital areas.

To illustrate the confusion we suffer from, let me consider the care of children, which I have been much concerned with recently. Fortunately we now have a Secretary at the Ministry who can conceptualize coherently, and who understands the problems and is also capable of developing systems of coordination which will enhance the services on offer. But whether he can cut through the accumulation of entities in the field is a question.
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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 »

At the last meeting of the Executive Committee of the Liberal Party, it was proposed that the Party needed to comment on two current issues, namely the crisis in education as exemplified by the FUTA strike, and what seems to be conflict between the executive branch of government and the judiciary. It was suggested that issuing statements was made difficult by my being a Member of Parliament on the government side, but I pointed out that I had never stood in the way of comments critical of government action.

The Liberal Party believes it took the right decision in supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa for the Presidency in 2005, and again in 2010, and it continues to believe that a government under his leadership offers the best hope for the country. Indeed, given the current state of politics, it is the only hope. However this does not mean blind acceptance of the work of all elements in government, and indeed my own writings have made clear where I think things could be better. Indeed one of my principal complaints has been the manner in which many government departments continue, through carelessness or incompetence, to ignore the policy outlines given by the President.

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Presentation at a meeting of the Pakistan Liberal Forum - Islamabad, 11th September 2012


I am grateful to the
Pakistan Liberal Forum for having invited me to speak today at your seminar on Challenges for Democracy in the upcoming Elections. Though you have suggested I present a regional perspective, it would be more practical I think for me to talk about democracy in Sri Lanka and the challenges we have faced, which may perhaps have lessons for you in Pakistan too.

Sri Lanka has been a functioning democracy for 80 years now, with Universal Adult Franchise bestowed on us by the British in 1931. That they gave us a privilege you in the then united subcontinent did not receive for over a decade longer is not a tribute to us, but rather a function of our small size and the perception that, whatever happened, we would not be a threat to the Empire. We were given not only the opportunity to select a legislature, but also an approximation to Cabinet government with seven Ministers chosen from amongst the members of the Legislature. Needless to say, though, there were three appointed Ministers, for Law and Finance and what was termed Chief Secretary, while Defence and External Affairs were kept in the hands of the Governor.

We followed the classic Westminster model which, as you know, does not separate the Executive from the Legislature. All members of the Cabinet were chosen from the Legislature, but unlike in Britain this soon turned into membership of the Legislature being seen as the main qualification for becoming a Minister.  Ability was not considered important, and seniority seemed a sufficient claim.

There were a few exceptions, and I can also think of one case where a man of recognized ability was brought into a safe seat, a practice that the British had, so as to bring in people of talent. More importantly they also had a House of Lords to which proven talent could be introduced, which India for instance still continues with, in the form of the Rajya Sabha. As you know, several of the most distinguished Ministers in the Indian cabinet have not faced the hustings, but are in effect appointed.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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