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download (8)I had a bizarre experience recently when I had to attend what is termed Standing Committee B of Parliament, which deals with legislation. This was in connection with the Vasantha Senanayake Foundation (Incorporation) Bill which I had sponsored. The experience was rendered worse by the Minutes which I received subsequently, which bore no relation to what had actually taken place.

I presume that there is some formula for reporting the meetings of these Standing Committees, but it was certainly inappropriate in this case, given that I had raised some matters which I had asked to be recorded. The Minutes state that I moved several amendments to the original draft of the Bill I had presented. This was not the case. What happened was that we were told the legal advisers had gone through the draft and suggested amendments. I accepted these, but I asked the basis on which they had been made.

It turned out then that the representative from the Legal Draughtsman’s Department who was supposed to liaise with Parliament regarding the Bill had no idea of the reasons. After much discussion one bright lawyer from the Attorney General’s Department said that the changes were probably because the Bill as it stood seemed to be in conflict with the Constitution.

I gathered then that for years the Attorney General had advised against many charitable works by Foundations on the grounds that the Constitution, following the introduction of the 13th Amendment that introduced Provincial Councils, declares that ‘No Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List shall become law unless such Bill has been referred by the President…. to every Provincial Council’.

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As I shall be away for a few weeks, I thought it best to bring this series to a close. I have tried here to discuss the need

a. for Parliament to be strengthened, through better use of Committees so that its legislative and oversight functions are treated seriously

b. of streamlining the Executive and making it more effective

c . to strengthen local administration

d. for much greater coordination between government bodies and also elected and unelected officials

e. to provide clear job descriptions and institute and enforce reporting mechanisms

f. of much better training programmes with assessments that privilege efficiency, effectiveness and initiative

I have noted some areas in which best practice is available, as with the Community Policing programmes in the East, or the regular discussions between Divisional Secretaries and Pradeshiya Sabha leaders in some areas in the North, or even the recording in Batticaloa of unused government buildings, in a context in which the thrust is to use more and more cement as yet another intelligent and able Government Agent put it.

I have also noted some areas in which reform is long overdue. A common theme of my suggestions is streamlining and targeting, as with the proposals for electoral reform that restore the link (and hence responsibility for and accountability to) between elected representative and the people; or the recommendation that the Cabinet be reduced in number with Ministers chosen for administrative capacity and planning skills rather than electoral success.

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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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The present controversies over the 13th Amendment and also the commitment of the government to conduct Provincial Council elections are fraught with controversies that I find ironic. I am aware that I am accused of all sorts of misdemeanours, if not quite crimes, for my continuing support for the President even while I continue to point out what seem areas in which reforms are urgently needed, and where some measures taken by government do not help either reconciliation or the coherent and equitable development this country needs.

But I am certainly consistent, and this should be the more obviously recognizable – though sadly no one looks at facts and engages in discussion based on evidence – in comparison with the astonishing inconsistencies of many others. Recently for instance I was struck with the vehemence with which some international locators were talking about the need for Provincial Council elections in the North, given that this was very far from their agenda when the LTTE was in control there.

I remember way back in 2003 being glad that G L Pieris had announced that elections would be held in the North, and then being quite critical of him when these were cancelled. In fairness to the poor man however I was told by Austin Fernando that he had wanted to go ahead with elections and it was the Prime Minister who had stopped him. I assumed this was because the LTTE had decreed they did not want elections and Ranil Wickremesinghe thought he had no alternative except to indulge them. Austin did not confirm this, but I gathered from his response that I was not wrong.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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