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I discussed last week the absurdity of how appointments are made to the cabinet. But the problem goes deeper than that, in that we have completely perverted the whole concept of cabinet government, and then multiplied the problem by having massive cabinets. Indeed the 19th amendment, contrary to the pledge in the President’s manifesto, practically entrenched this, by introducing provision for what is described as a National Government, with no effort at all to define what that might mean.

So we now have a government that certainly does not represent the nation, since it is clear that parties representing a majority of the Sinhalese and a majority of the Tamils are not in government. Only the Muslims can claim that, and even that perhaps may soon be in doubt, given the breach that has developed between Rauff Hakeem and Hassen Ali, who is one of the few Muslim politicians who can claim to be a man of principle. He was one of the five members on the government side who did not vote for the impeachment of the then Chief Justice, the only member of the Muslim Congress who stood firm.

In Sri Lanka the cabinet has become a reward for getting into Parliament and having pleased those in power. Being a Minister does not however necessarily confer power with regard to policy making, but this is not a problem for most Ministers because they are not really concerned with policy, and few have the capacity to understand policy and planning. Rather, they see ministries as providing them with perks, as the excesses of the last few weeks have made clear, the massive sums the country now has to fork out for yet more vehicles for yet more ministers. Read the rest of this entry »

Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.

It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.

After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.

But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.

I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.

The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially. Read the rest of this entry »

One of my more naïve assumptions as I entered Parliament, in April 2010, was that it was an independent institution. I also assumed that it was the role of backbenchers, even on the government side, to bring issues to the attention of the executive. I was therefore the first member on the government side to ask a question, and also the first to propose an adjournment motion.

Some of my colleagues actually questioned this and suggested I was trying to embarrass the government. But at a Parliamentary Group Meeting the President indicated that we should get involved in such parliamentary practices, and not leave it all to the opposition, whereupon others followed suit.

I was less lucky about another initiative I started, which was to propose adjournment motions signed also by opposition members. I had found several who seemed like me to want the dignity of Parliament upheld, but after I had got several signatures – Ramesh Pathirana and Neranjan Wickremesinghe from the UPFA, Rosy Senanayake and Buddhika Pathirana from the UNP, Sunil Handunetti of the JVP and Mr Saravanaparvan of the TNA and Mr Radhakrishnan of the UPF – one member of the government group questioned the concept and, sure enough, at the next Parliamentary group meeting, the President said this was not proper. Unbeknownst to me, his idea of promoting consensus was to bring people over to then vote with government on all issues – which happened soon afterwards, giving the government a 2/3rd majority – not, as I had hoped, to promote initiatives which parliamentarians on all sides would favour. As a matter of interest, I give here the text of the motion which eight of us signed and handed in to the Leader of the House –

We, the undersigned Members of Parliament, representing a cross-section of parties, request that the following adjournment motion be taken up for discussion as soon s possible –

That this House do stand adjourned to regret the numerous occasions on which Parliamentary questions have to be postponed again and again because of a failure to provide answers in time; to request Hon Ministers, while recognizing that such delays are due to circumstances beyond their control, to emphasize to Ministry staff and Heads of Departments the importance of providing answers quickly; to suggest that Ministries should set up systems to maintain records more carefully so as to have essential information readily available; to urge the relevant Ministries to devise and implement swiftly training programmes for public servants that will ensure skills in line with the requirements of a knowledge society; to request a thorough overhaul of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration to promote the provision of courses that may receive appropriate accreditation , to improve soft skills of communication and analysis as well as administration; and to urge the entrenchment in the public service of a culture of swift responsiveness to the needs of the public, with regard to information as well as action.

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qrcode.31254677I was asked recently in an interview to mention seven areas of priority for the new Parliament. I began with Education and Reconciliation which have long been priorities for me. But then I also noted some other areas in which structural change was essential.

One of these was providing greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making. But I did not by this mean a return to the old debate about devolution and sharing power between the Centre and Provincial governments. My stress was on more power to local bodies, and I also thought it vital to develop better consultation mechanisms.

I am glad that the UPFA manifesto notes this need, and I hope they will study the progress made in this area by the Ministry of Public Administration, working in collaboration with UNDP. A couple of years back the Ministry Secretary sent out a circular about regular meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and he also issued, together with the Secretary for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a circular setting up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. Building on such initiatives, there was an excellent report prepared by Asoka Gunewardena on improving Service Delivery in the Divisions. This should be used to flesh out the manifesto, leading I hope to fulfilment of the President’s commitment in his January manifesto that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area’.

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qrcode.31217364I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.

Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.

In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.

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qrcode.31104759After he won election, Jayewardene ignored his own political theories when he found himself in command of almost absolute power following the massive electoral victory in 1977. He was virtually unquestionable for, along with Senanayake, most of those who had held cabinet office in the 1965 UNP government were dead. Jayewardene was more senior than all those who remained and he soon dismissed his only contemporary, a cabinet minister who had been with him in the 1950s.

The fact that he did not implement his proposals was clearly his own decision rather than the result of political compromise. He probably realised that his control of parliament would be enhanced by continuing the requirement that the cabinet should be drawn from parliament. The executive would not be criticised by members of his own party if they were hoping to join it and if its senior members were present with them in parliament. Another reason may have been that he was winning over members of other parties by offering them executive positions. It would have been embarrassing if they had to vacate their parliamentary seats for this new system, in which case candidates would have had to be nominated to the seats by either Jayewardene himself or the party to which they had originally belonged.

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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.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.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.

Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2017
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