President Mahinda Rajapakse has, with single-minded determination, destroyed the capacity of the LTTE to wage war in any serious form. Also, by speaking to the Tamil-speaking population in their language on more than one occasion, he has demonstrated his wish to establish a genuine rapport with them. He has said that he does not differentiate between the majority and the minorities but only between those who love Sri Lanka and those who do not. More than once, he has assured the citizens of this country that everyone should respect the Constitution and be mindful of the need to establish good governance and the Rule of Law. He has strongly expressed his desire to get rid of the presidential system of government and return power to Parliament. President Rajapakse’s statements and intentions on these topics are warmly welcomed by us at the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) and we look forward to seeing these take on a more precise form to guide those who will be charged with transforming his vision into practical reality.
Considering the President’s efforts to communicate with the Tamil people in their language, we should like to see the bureaucracy do likewise in their day to day work. All of us are well aware that the provisions relating to the use of Tamil in state activities have been mostly ignored in the past. Hence, the first priority would be to appoint an effective Task Force which will see to it, in a very proactive manner, that the bureaucracy does not continue with the lapses and contraventions of the past three or more decades. Moreover, it is of paramount importance that the President allocates substantial additional resources in the Budget for advancing his recent programme to teach IT and English to all schoolchildren. Although the primary object of emphasising these two subjects was probably in the interests of economic development, we are certain that this will prove to be a measure of monumental importance in facilitating communication between children who are compelled to study in different language streams. Furthermore, promotion of these instruments of mass communication will help schoolchildren greatly by not subjecting them to the additional burden of having to learn either Tamil or Sinhalese as examination subjects. It is difficult to think of a better mechanism to bring together the citizens of the next generation, which is an absolutely vital requirement for political, cultural, social, technological and economic progress.
President Rajapakse has also undertaken to abolish the presidential type of Constitution and to give power back to Parliament. There would be very few persons who have studied the workings of the present presidential system who would disagree with the President’s intentions in this regard. When the Constitution is being amended, it would be prudent to take into account all the many other constitutional issues which political commentators and civil society organisations have been addressing repeatedly, especially since 1994. Some of the more important issues are touched upon below.
Separation of powers – In an efficient democracy, there should be a clear separation of powers between Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. When President J.R.Jayewardene chose to have something on the lines of a US-French presidential system, he unfortunately retained one of the worst features of the British system, where MPs become Ministers. This leads to a farcical conflict of interests where Ministers of the governing party force through legislation in Parliament to suit their own agendas and, by unscrupulous recourse to their party’s parliamentary majority, block all investigations into their poor performance by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). It is, therefore, essential that an MP who is appointed a Minister should resign from Parliament and let somebody else take his place there. Thus, Parliament can be freed from all executive work and confine its functions to legislation and monitoring the performance of the Executive, including the Ministers, whose job would then be limited to implementing the programmes approved by Parliament.
Ethnic, Religious and other Classifications – Unless there is an unavoidable need to do so, references to ethnicity, religion and other differentiating classifications should not be permitted in government or commercial documentation. The onus of justifying a call for such details should fall squarely on the persons who wish to prepare such documentation. This proposal is in furtherance of the President’s implicit position that no one should be identified as belonging to a minority.
Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions – The present system of appointing members to the Constitutional Council (CC) should be changed so that they are selected solely on account of their eminence, integrity and willingness to, say, devote two or three years of their time, immediately before or after retirement, to full time work at the Council. The present system of part-time membership will not be adequate to deal with the increased numbers of Independent Commissions which will be necessary to divorce the public service, and nationally-important governmental and other institutions, from political interference. Some of the more critical of these are the Elections Commission, High Appointments Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission, Judicial Services Commission, Bribery Commission, Human Rights Commission, Media Commission and Finance Commission. The CC and the Independent Commissions should be financed directly from the Consolidated Fund and not be subject to the whims, fancies and prejudices of the Treasury, Ministers or the even the Cabinet. Parliament alone should be responsible for the reasonable allocation of enough funds to permit these entities to function effectively.
Subsidiarity – Parliament must restore to the citizens at the periphery sufficient powers to enable them look after local problems without reference to the larger units of government. Funding should be directly from the Consolidated Fund. In short, the promotion and widespread application of the principle of subsidiarity needs to be at the heart of democratic, people-oriented government. The Grama Rajya concept is the primary component of this exercise.
Declaration of Assets and Liabilities – The public is not aware that there is a huge range of persons who are supposed to declare their assets and liabilities to some specified authority but there no monitoring of compliance. For example, we have time and again addressed the Speaker to tell us how many MPs have failed to make their declarations but he remains silent. Is it a case of “Let the dogs bark; the caravan moves on!”? At the very least, the President should insist that all Ministers, MPs, Provincial Chief Ministers and all state employees who head departments, boards, corporations and tender boards should declare their assets to the Department of Inland Revenue (DIR), and have the law changed accordingly. All Assessors and higher officers in the DIR, should declare their assets to the Auditor-General. In some countries, any member of the public can access this information under the Right to Information Law. We need to have something similar but, in view of our national weakness for groundless vilification, a few basic safeguards may have to be introduced.
International Commitments – Sri Lanka has signed a substantial number of international covenants, protocols and other legal instruments but has often failed to produce the necessary legislation to give effect to the undertakings given by it. We are proud of our long history of civilised behaviour and, hence, the failure to act sincerely and honestly in line with our lawful commitments is a dreadful slur on the People of Sri Lanka. This situation must be put right without prevarication. If we do what is right, we can always stand tall in the international community of nations.