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I returned from Azerbaijan on June 23rd and had to go that morning to Parliament for a COPE meeting. The report on the Bond scam was being drafted, and it was clear that it would show that Arjuna Mahendran had interfered egregiously with bond placements to the great detriment of the economy. The Opposition was feeling quite confident, but this made it push its luck and indicate that it would press for a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, who had clearly been responsible for what had happened, as indicated by his spirited defence of his acolyte – and indeed the instructions he had given to less scrupulous members of COPE to delay proceedings.

But this was not the only issue of importance, and it should not I felt be allowed to detract from the reforms that had been pledged in the President’s manifesto. The most important of these, which had been ignored when the Constitution was amended in April, was electoral reform, but the President had promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until that was accomplished. I believe he was sincere, but I worried given the rumours that were circulating about an early dissolution. However Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the Opposition, assured me during this week that the President had again promised that he would ensure electoral reform before having an election.

One area that I had not been able to address in the Manifesto was the need for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. This had been pledged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 manifesto, and he had indeed appointed a Committee headed by Jayampathy Wickremaratne to draft one. But by 2007, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, this lay forgotten, with the President and Jayampathy clearly no longer trusting each other. I was sorry about this, and told Jayampathy he should proceed, but it was clear he did not think the effort worthwhile in the prevailing dispensation.

But when in 2008 I was appointed also to the position of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following a renewed pledge in Geneva that a Bill of Rights would be introduced, I felt I could press, and Jayampathy was persuaded to reactivate his committee. We used many of the people who were also working on the Human Rights Action Plan that had been promised in Geneva, and well before the end of 2009 we had good drafts ready.

The silly season however had set in by then, and the President was concerned now only about the election. He had said work on the HR Plan should only continue after the election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe was not willing to press, nor even to bring the Bill of Rights to his attention. I foolishly asked him whether I could put it on the Ministry website as a draft, which he forbade, whereas I should have gone ahead without asking him, so that he would not have got any flak. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

qrcode.29654080One of the biggest problems Sri Lanka faces is the absence of consultation between political parties. The manner in which the Reform Agenda of the President was nearly destroyed because of a failure to see it as a national need is typical of what is wrong. The Prime Minister decided that this was an enterprise for which the UNP had to get the credit, and accordingly he worked only with his chosen acolytes. Though lip service was paid to consultation, through what was termed the National Executive Council, this was set up in a very haphazard fashion, and had no plan of work, nor regular meetings.

So the 19th Amendment emerged, like Athene from the head of Zeus, from the team that Ranil had asked as early as November to prepare a Bill to transfer power from the President to the Prime Minister. Jayampathy Wickremaratne revealed this early in our discussions about the manifesto, and though he took the point that publication of such a Bill during the campaign would play straight into Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hands, he did not accept the further point that such a procedure would be unfair. It was wrong to ask the people to vote for one person in order to give power to another, but Jayampathy was so enamoured by then of the Wickremesinghe agenda, that he simply bided his time and then produced his draft.

The result was that what should have been a process conducted with goodwill on all sides turned acrimonious. Other aspects of the manifesto that seemed equally important to other parties were ignored. Though perhaps Ranil Wickremesinghe was only concerned with what was of immediate importance to him, and thought other things could be dealt with later, the impression he created was that he was simply not interested in strengthening Parliament (through amending the Standing Orders) or introducing a Code of Conduct, or Electoral Reform.

 

Perhaps he cannot be blamed, given the confrontational view of politics that has developed in the last half century and more. The problem I think started with the manner in which Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was defeated in 1964, which involved bribery on a scale that would now seem ludicrous. But even so, the Parliament elected in 1965 seemed remarkably civilized, and legislation did seem to involve consultation and consensus. Indeed, though I still regret the manner in which the opposition campaigned against Dudley Senanayake’s attempt to introduce District Councils, that measure lost largely because of the internal opposition to devolution in his party.

The 1970 election however put paid to hopes of consensus building. Perhaps traumatized by the 1971 insurrection, the United Front government pushed through its new constitution without sufficient consultation. It did however go through the motions, of setting up a Constituent Assembly, but internal problems in the UNP prevented a principled response, which might have led to more productive discussion. In turn, in 1978, helped by the rout of the SLFP, J R Jayewardene virtually ramrodded his new constitution through, ignoring the very sensible strictures of experts such as N M Perera.

 

The massive majority he enjoyed, and the carrots he provided his MPs with, led to a breakdown in the Committee system. I was astonished, when I got into Parliament, to find that Committees did not meet regularly, and when they did, they took no notice of what they were supposed to discuss according to the Standing Orders. The business they transacted was about the particular problems of individual MPs. The idea that they should consider policy and examine expenditure seemed incomprehensible to my colleagues. One could not however blame them, since the electoral system J R had instituted meant that they had to devote all their energies to popularizing themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2017
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