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Good Governance 8I have been arguing for the last few months that the basic principle this government was elected to fulfil, namely reducing the power of an over mighty executive, requires the establishment of alternative centres of power. The Wickremesinghe recipe of transferring all power to the Prime Minister, by giving the latter freedom of action and placing the President firmly under his control, is authoritarianism of an even more insidious sort.

 

But in the discussions I see in the media, there is little attention to those alternative centres of power. The failure to amend Standing Orders so as to strengthen Parliament, and give due recognition to the Opposition, has not been discussed anywhere. The continuing suppression of the Public Service, by handing over the appointment of the Accounting Officers of all Ministries wholly to the Executive, has hardly been noticed. The fact that Secretaries have to see themselves as the chosen instruments of their Ministers, or of the political executive authority has not been challenged.

 

With regard to the Judiciary, simply getting rid of Mohan Pieris seems to be thought enough to guarantee an effective judiciary. No one seems to be interested in correcting the flawed impeachment procedure that led to Shirani Bandaranayake being accused and judged by the same group of people. And no one seems to be interested in ensuring that the judicial process is simplified and expedited, that judges follow rules as to remanding and sentencing, that legislation is prepared in a fashion that makes it readily understandable by the people whom it affects.

 

I have long realized that many of those who claim to want good governance are concerned mainly with criticizing the abuses of those they dislike, and putting in place alternatives that deal with the excesses of particular individuals. The need to have a principled approach to the problems that have beset us over the last few decades is understood only be a few individuals such as Rev Sobitha and Elmore Perera, and they seem to have been comprehensively sidelined in the last few months. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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I wrote last week about the need to have a Parliament in which members could fulfil their legislative role more effectively. But, in addition to changes in the electoral system, we need for this purpose to ensure that Parliamentarians have a better understanding of that role.

Essentially Parliament has two principal functions. One is with regard to laws, inasmuch as it is Parliament that formulates and passed laws. But, since laws pertain to particular functions, which are fulfilled by the Executive Branch, it is necessary for Parliamentarians to understand what those functions are.

Sadly the principal contact that Parliamentary practice in Sri Lanka now provides is used to discuss particular issues relating to constituencies, and to request resources for constituency purposes. There is hardly any discussion of policy. In any case the manner in which Parliamentarians are allocated to Committees, and the large numbers involved (many of whom do not attend, as I have found in waiting for a quorum to be made up), mean that policy discussions are rare.

The large number of Ministries we have – some of which have hardly held Consultative Committee meetings – mean that policy making is complicated, since so many different agencies are involved. The absurdity of pretending that Parliament can actually monitor the work of so many Ministries has been made manifest by the manner in which this year, twice the number of Ministries as last year have been put into a job lot for Committee Stage discussion during the Budget debate. Read the rest of this entry »

The recent series of articles by Mr Wijeweera on parliamentary and administrative reforms are a welcome feature in the columns of the ‘Island’. I do not propose to discuss here the different ideas he puts forward. Some are similar to those I advanced in a series on parliament that I wrote some months back, some are different, some seem to me unquestionably good, others I would hesitate about. But the details are not the point. What is important is that he has raised several issues, with criticism based on careful argument about current practices.

I can only hope then that authorities in Parliament, in the offices of the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip and the Opposition Whip, will have read these carefully. I am not too certain though that this will happen, and lead to fruitful discussion and reform. However perhaps our quest for improvement will revive now, since we had the benefit recently of a Parliamentary delegation visiting India and finding out about practices in the Indian Parliament.

Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal - Minister for Parliamentary Affairs

The visit, and in particular a meeting with the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal, were most enlightening. Our delegation was headed by the Speaker, and included the Chief Whip, though perhaps it is a pity that our own Minister for Parliamentary Affairs was not with us, since I am sure she could have engaged actively with her counterpart to pick up some good ideas.

Most interesting I thought was his description of what are described as Departmentally Related Standing Committees. There are 24 of these, and they deal with subject areas rather than Ministries. They are distinct from the Consultative Committees, which we also have, which are based on Ministries and chaired by the concerned Minister.

The Standing Committees cover areas which come under the purview of different Ministries. Ministers are not permitted to sit on these Committees, which therefore deal with policy matters from a wider perspective. The Minister also noted that these Committees tend to work on a less confrontational basis than happens in Parliament as a whole, and can therefore come up with helpful and generally acceptable proposals.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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