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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.30283437I was surprised to be told recently that the Secretary to the Cabinet Ministry under which I was supposed to work as State Minister of Higher Education had been dismissed. Eran Wickremaratne explained the reasons to me, but I will not go into those since, much as I respect Eran’s own integrity, there may be another side to the story, which reflects less well on the Cabinet Minister than the Secretary.

In particular, after the admission that Kabir Hashim, along with Malik Samarawickrema and the Minister of Finance, had been in the Central Bank to raise the issue of obtaining more money, shortly before Arjuna Mahendran’s fatal decision to take 10 billion by auction, I have my suspicions about what has been going on there. Thankfully, Eran said very clearly that he was not at that meeting and had known nothing about it, which I suspect would be true of the Secretary too.

I did raise with Eran the question of the failure of the 19th Amendment to address a fundamental principle of Good Governance, which is the strengthening of the independence of Public Servants. Certainly there should be provision to dismiss public servants if they do something wrong, but that should not be a political decision, it should be made by the Public Service Commission. And we must go back to the usual practice in parliamentary democracies where Ministers come from within Parliament, which is that Secretaries to Ministries are in effect Permanent, and not changed with every change of government.

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qrcode.30141748Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.

Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?

I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.

But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.

I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.

Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?

Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.

I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.

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reform agenda 13I have written already about the inconsistency this government is manifesting with regard to strengthening the independence of the Public Service. It is patently ridiculous that much energy is expended upon ensuring a Public Service Commission that is not constituted according to Presidential or Prime Ministerial whims and fancies, but continuing to leave the Commission with no authority at all with regard to the seniormost positions in the Public Service. And it is obviously counter-productive, if one wants an independent Public Service, to have Secretaries to Ministries replaced when there is a change of government. This suggests that they are meant to serve the government in power, whereas going back to the practice of having Permanent Secretaries makes it clear that they are in office to serve the State.

 Keeping them in office, instead of allowing this to be a matter of grace and favour, will also help to ensure continuity. When you have new Ministers – who often know nothing about the subject they have to handle, because we do not have a Shadow Cabinet system – and new Secretaries, understanding what has been happening becomes difficult. And even when the Secretary is kept on, since he will see this as a concession, he will be hesitant to expound the virtues of what the previous Minister has done. So often good initiatives are promptly forgotten, and wheels are reinvented, with little understanding of the road conditions.

One sad example of the probems that arise relates to an excellent initiative of the National Child Protection Authority. They had established a hotline for children, which has proved increasingly popular in the period after it was made operational for 24 hours. Now this may be cut to working hours, and the line transferred to the Ministry. Though the previous administration had obtained a grant from the South Asian body responsible for Child protection to improve the hotline, there is some confusion now about that money since it was for both Women and Children, and the Ministries have been divided up. I believe, given how dedicated the Minister is, that things may work out all right, but I worry lest children will be expected to ensure that abuse, or even worries, occur only during working hours. Read the rest of this entry »

reform agenda 12The Liberal Party was the first to say, more than two decades ago, that the Presidency as constituted by J R Jayewardene had too much power. In particular we felt it was wrong for the President to have total discretion with regard to appointments to important positions responsible for making decisions that affected the country at large.

This was not a popular view, and it was only more than 20 years after the Presidency was introduced that the matter reached boiling point as it were. So in 2001, in the last throes of the government President Kumaratunga had set up a year earlier, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced. But though it was obviously better to have some check on the President, the form this took was confusing, and not in accordance with general political principles.

What it did was set up a body of appointees who had to approve the nominations of the President to individual positions. It also had the unparalleled power of choosing nominees to Commissions, which the President was expected to endorse. This was bizarre, for to confine an elected President in this way, turning him or her into a rubber stamp, is grossly inappropriate. It was not surprising then that President Kumaratunga flatly refused to appoint the Elections Commission that had been selected by the Constitutional Council.

I myself feel that the Parliamentary Council set up under the 18th Amendment was more in accordance with political practice internationally, though unfortunately it did not have veto power. Still, had the Council actually ever met, it could have fulfilled a public purpose in that it could have put in writing objections to nominees of the President. After all in a classic Westminster system, a Head of State who is not elected by the people will not turn down a nominee of an elected Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is careful to select appropriate people, since a delay, or a simple suggestion that he reconsider, would immeasurably reduce the moral authority of the nominee. In recent years a polite but detailed account of why Mohan Pieris was inappropriate, with for instance the arguments so clearly presented by Nagananda Kodituwakku, would have made it difficult for President Rajapaksa to persist with the nomination. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2018
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