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qrcode.30826356In my book on Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, which Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a decade or so back, I wrote that ‘Undoubtedly, the most important function of a government is to ensure the security of its people.’ People needed to ensure their safety from external threats, and they also needed security from others within the community. For the latter they needed laws to govern relations internally, with mechanisms to defend against attacks from outside – though initially these were not subject to law.

Among the most essential functions of government then are security (external and internal) and justice. So in many countries amongst the most important members of the cabinet are the minister of defence and the minister of justice. The former looks after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, although in some countries there is a separate Ministry for this purpose.

The Ministry of Justice regulates the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the law. In certain exceptional cases, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet and come under a chief justice. However, there too, there is an attorney general in the cabinet who has to ensure that the laws are implemented and those suspected of criminal acts prosecuted in the courts.

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Political Principles 4This is a much misunderstood doctrine, and I fear that ignorance of the principle will lead to reform of the current constitution in a disastrous manner. When there was a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, the more unsavoury elements in the UNP immediately declared that it would be replaced by an Executive Prime Ministership.

That is an absurd idea, but I found even Jayampathy Wickremaratne dogmatically declaring that an Act was being prepared to made such a transfer immediately. I argued against this strongly, first on the grounds that it would play straight into the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He, and my friend Dayan Jayatilleka, were arguing that a vote for Maithripala Sirisena would amount to a vote to put Ranil Wickremesinghe in power. Had Jayampathy unveiled his draft Act as he claimed was necessary, the government would have made mincemeat of the opposition campaign.

My second point was I felt even more important, namely that it would be immoral to ask people to vote for Maithripala Sirisena only to transfer power immediately into the hands of someone who would never have been elected on his own merits. It is to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credit that he recognized this. When I spoke to him shortly before the Sirisena candidature was announced, I confirmed that the Liberal Party would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, but I added that we could not support Ranil either. The reason I gave was that he simply could not win, and he immediately agreed and said that was why he had tried to persuade President Kumartunga to come forward.

That confirmed my view that Ranil, though able enough with regard to economic discipline, was simply no judge of people – as the appointments he makes testify, culminating in the selection of Tissa Attanayake as General Secretary of the UNP. I told him then that Chandrika would do even worse than he would, and we had to hope for someone more acceptable to the nation to emerge. I think we both knew by then that Maithripala Sirisena would indeed emerge, but we respected confidentiality and left it at that.

What we now have then is ideal, with Maithripala Sirisena as President and Ranil working under him as Prime Minister. But I have realized, from the manner in which the Cabinet has been constituted, that Ranil has thought of electoral considerations first, and this is no way to run a country. It is for that reason that, in the reforms we are engaged in, we must understand basic principles of constitutionality. I therefore present here only the section on the Separation of Powers from my book –

In a few countries, such as the United States, the executive and the legislature are almost wholly independent of each other. This is in accordance with the doctrine of Separation of Powers, put forward by Montesquieu, a political theorist of the eighteenth century. Montesquieu believed that the people would suffer if any one individual or institution had absolute power. Therefore, he advocated that the legislature (the body responsible for making the laws) should function independently from the executive (the body responsible for implementing the laws). These ideas were followed during the drafting of the American Constitution in the 1780s.

 

Sri Lanka, along with many other countries, follows the British model which does not separate the executive from the legislature. In Britain, the king initially had absolute power. He ruled with the help of a cabinet appointed according to his wishes. Gradually however parliament developed a rival authority and it became customary for the king’s first minister to obtain the support of parliament. Then, during the nineteenth century, it was established that the king could not appoint a candidate as prime minister unless he had the confidence of parliament. Now, after a parliamentary election, the monarch invites the leader of the party which has a majority in parliament to form the government.

This in effect means that the prime minister, who runs the executive branch, also controls parliament. Earlier MPs felt that their main responsibility was to the people who had elected them and therefore they often challenged the executive on specific issues, even if they broadly supported it. Now however with allegiance to a party being considered more important than the interests of the nation or the people one represents, even parliamentarians who have no executive position do not normally challenge their party leader when he or she is prime minister. In countries like Sri Lanka, it is almost impossible to question the party members in the executive and remain in the party. Read the rest of this entry »

Prince 1It is not likely that the President will be awakened swiftly from the enchantment cast upon him by his closest advisers. However, if and when he does realize that a change is essential if he is to preserve not just his legacy, but even perhaps his Presidency, he has some obviously desirable remedies to hand.

For though the Parliamentary Select Committee has thus far achieved nothing, it has had some very sensible proposals brought before it by moderates within government. The Liberal Party made suggestions made on its experience of acting as a link between successive governments and representatives of Tamil parties, but even more important were the suggestions made by Vasantha Senanayake on behalf of a group of young politicians and professionals. Subsequently the Liberal Party, after studying the proposals, wrote to the PSC endorsing them.

Vasantha was the scion of a great political family. His great grandfather D S Senanayake had been Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, and his great uncle Dudley had been elected Prime Minister three times. Both had presided over Cabinets with representation from popular Tamil political parties.

Vasantha however had left the United National Party, which his great grand father had founded, and now sat in Parliament as a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to which the President belonged. He, like many other promising youngsters, had been sidelined by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had, on the pattern of his mother’s cousin, J R Jayewardene, wanted absolute control of his party, and thought ability less important than personal loyalty. 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

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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Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – 20 January 2013

I plan in the three hours of this workshop to cover a lot of ground, which I hope will lead to much discussion, and to some understanding of the principles of government, and actual practice in Sri Lanka. This will require being direct, but the criticisms I make will I hope provoke thought, and encourage efforts at reforms that are essential.

Of all countries that have a long democratic tradition, Sri Lanka has perhaps the most dysfunctional structure of government. If you look at constitutional dispensations elsewhere, there are essentially two. The first, springing from Britain, and known as the Westminster model, combines the Executive and the Legislature. All Ministers come from Parliament, and report to it directly.

The second is based on the doctrine of Separation of Powers, and was first put into practice in the United States of America. The Executive is entirely separate there from the Legislature. A directly appointed President selects a Cabinet to run the various Departments of Government. Parliamentarians, in addition to passing laws, also however play a role with regard to the executive, in that they are in charge of the budget that finances the work of the Executive. They are also meant to monitor its work through the financial controls they exercise, and to contribute to policy through Committees.

Our Constitution is a hybrid of these two systems. Though it is claimed that it is similar to the French, where there is a Prime Minister in addition to a President, the differences are immense. Though the President in France must appoint a Prime Minister in terms of command of a majority in Parliament, he can appoint anyone from outside Parliament to this post, and to any executive office. Anyone who comes from Parliament, including the Prime Minister, must give up his Parliamentary position before becoming part of the Executive.

Thus the Executive concentrates on getting things done, without the demands of legislation or constituency requirements. And it has no role to play in oversight. Correspondingly, at Parliament can exercise its oversight function without being dominated by the Executive branch. In Sri Lanka all aspects of Parliament are controlled by Ministers. They chair all Committees, whereas even in Britain, though members of the Cabinet are obviously more equal than others, Committees are left to backbenchers.

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Anyone who knows anything about political theory has heard of the doctrine of the Separation of Powers. This means that those who perform the active function of government, the executors or doers, should be distinct from those who lay down the framework on which action is taken, the legislators. That framework is created not only through laws, but also through the budget, the allocation of resources for the Executive. Because of this latter responsibility, the Legislature also acts as the monitor of Executive action, through oversight mechanisms.

Hardly anyone thinks that this doctrine of Separation is a bad thing. Obviously those who act should not also be the judges of their own actions. However we tend in this country to ignore the fact that the doctrine does not operate at all here. The simple fact is that all members of the Executive, apart from the President, are also members of the Legislature. The proportion of legislators who belong to the Executive, and see this as their primary function and responsibility, has grown and grown over the years. Since 1977 the proportion has been well over half of the majority faction in Parliament, indeed in the 1977 Parliament it was well over half Parliament as a whole.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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