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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.30213992Democracy developed apace in Britain in the 19th century, and the Ceylonese began to ask for similar rights for themselves. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was impossible for the British government to refuse such demands. The Liberal Party had returned to office in 1906 and many years, on a reform platform that included reducing the power of the House of Lords, in pursuit of its belief that final decisions should rest with the elected representatives of the people. Though they did not extend democracy on such lines to the colonies, they began  a process which did lead to universal franchise in Sri Lanka within a quarter of a century after the reform process began.

McCallum Constitution: The Elective Principle

In 1912, the elective principle was introduced in the Legislative Council. According to the principle just one representative was to be elected by all ‘educated’ Ceylonese. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, perhaps in recognition of his contribution, was voted to this position by a substantial majority in what was a largely Sinhalese electorate. He justified this faith in his representative capabilities when he argued passionately on behalf of the Sinhalese imprisoned by the British after the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. Legend attributes the reaction of the government in Britain to representations made by E.W.Perera, who travelled to England after the riots. But that would have been far too late to save the imprisoned Ceylonese, and in reality it was Ramanathan who did most for the victimised Sinhalese.

Among the prisoners was  D. S.Senanayake who later went on to become the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka. The British administration in Colombo was threatening the severest penalties of martial law against him. It was Ramanathan’s spirited attack against the unjustified violence of the British reaction to the riots that roused the attention of the British government. When the British government was informed by telegraph of his protest, it decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach and to recall the then Governor of Ceylon.

These incidents occurred after the Colebrooke Constitution had been replaced by a constitution implemented by Governor McCallum. The franchise, by now, had been extended in Britain to include all adult males and therefore it was believed necessary to provide some concession to the elective principle in Ceylon. It was seen as one of the more advanced colonies, suitable for experiments because of its small size. The Executive Council remained unchanged, but the Legislative Council was expanded to 21, including ten unofficial members, four of whom were to be elected. Of the four elected members two were Europeans, one a Burgher and one an ’educated’ Ceylonese. The other six—three Sinhalese, two Tamils and a Muslim—were to be appointed by the governor.

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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 »

 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

download (3)An enormous step forward was taken recently by Parliament, the first with regard to Parliamentary practice since COPE decided to establish Sub-Committees so that it could try to cover all the institutions that came under its purview each year. I can take some credit for this step too, since the Secretary General kindly informed me that this followed on my pointing out to him that the proceedings of Parliamentary Consultative Committees were not available to the public.

Beginning with the proceedings of May 2014, Parliament now issues a Monthly Report that consists of the Minutes of the Consultative Committees. This should in theory be a monthly document, since there are 60 Consultative Committees, all of which should meet every month according to Standing Orders. However there were only 15 sets on minutes, one of which recorded that the meeting was not held since only the Minister and I were present. So there was no quorum, though I should note that we did have a very fruitful discussion, which has been recorded, since the Ministry, that of National Languages and Social Integration, had invited representatives of the Ministries of Education and of Youth Affairs to discuss matters of common interest.

For five other Ministries the minutes had not been confirmed, which I presume means the Ministry has not as yet responded to the draft sent by the Committee Office. 40 Ministries it seems had not met. One excuse made for this lapse is that, given limited space and time, it is not possible for all the Ministries to meet each month. But this will not wash since, given that more than one meeting can be held at a time, and that Parliament sits for 8 days each month, it would easily be possible to cover the whole gamut  if 7 or 8 meetings are held on each sitting day.

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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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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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Rajiva Wijesinha

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