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Standing OrdersThe Standing Order Committee finally met today, and we had what seemed a very productive session. I hope we are on our way now to fulfilling one of the first commitments in the manifesto, to amend Standing Orders so as to strengthen Parliament.

Needless to say there was nobody there from the UNP. Their total neglect of Standing Orders in the last few years was I think due more to ignorance rather than a lack of principle, which is why the Prime Minister should have nominated someone with a greater grasp of political concepts. But it was still John Amaratunga who was supposed to attend, and of course he did not come.

But we had Mr Sumanthiran, who had been the other moving spirit behind the swift way in which we worked in the first few months of this Parliament, before the Speaker stopped summoning the Committee. Dinesh Gunawardena also came, which I much appreciated, because he had done his best, which no one else in the Parliamentary Business Committee did, to get the Speaker to move on the Amendments I had proposed way back in 2013. Ajith Kumara was also there, and the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees, as also the Secretary General (who has a very good grasp of political principles), along with his Deputy.

We did not reach any decision on Consultative Committees, since it seems the Prime Minister has suggested we should have something called Sectoral Committees. I am delighted that he has at last thought about something he should have been thinking of for the last 37 years, but I suppose one should be glad that at last he has realized the importance of structures that enhance the power of Parliament. I have still to see his suggestions, which have been circulated to other Party Leaders, but will be content to hope for the best and return to this area later.

Meanwhile we have reached agreement on seven other areas as to which I had proposed reforms. Many intelligent suggestions were made on the rest, and we finally agreed on the following; Read the rest of this entry »

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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

In addition to discussion of the role of oversight committees of Parliament in reducing corruption, two other important issues were raised at the Transparency International consultation with Parliamentarians, where structural reforms are required if corruption is to be reduced. One is an area in which the system we have increases the temptation, or perhaps even the need, to be corrupt.

This is our current electoral system, where those seeking election to Parliament, and indeed to any political body, have to campaign over a vast area, and combat members of their own party as well as the opposition. The obvious solution is to change the electoral system, but another method proposed was to have strict caps on election expenses, with funds provided by the state. I am not sure this will work, given the many ways in which money can be spent with no direct connection to the candidate, which indeed might increase corruption. But I was happy that the issue had been considered, and some sort of remedy thought essential.

The other structural problem we have is the vast size of the Cabinet. There may be no direct link between the plethora of Ministerial positions and corruption, but it certainly makes financial controls more difficult. In addition to the natural desire of any Minister to make a mark, which requires spending money, the number of Ministers means that Parliament cannot properly exercise financial controls over the Executive, since it is holders of Executive office who dominate Parliament and all its committees. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

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