In a newspaper article contributed by the Citizens’ Movement of Good Governance (CIMOGG) in early October 2007, it was argued that, other than in the case of a declaration of war or some other major emergency, a Green Paper or a White Paper should invariably be published outlining and explaining every significant new Government proposal so as to encourage members of the public to come up with their own views on such proposals (see the book “Good Governance and the Rule of Law – A.C.Visvalingam – April 2011” – p83). It was emphasised that virtually all Government bills are intended to deal with problems which have been known for years and years and that there could be no genuine justification for treating any of these as “urgent”, or in maintaining secrecy regarding their contents, or delaying the printing and sale of the relevant Gazettes, about which there have been many complaints in Parliament over the years. Instead, open discussion is now completely discouraged and the primary democratic requirement for transparency in law-making has become a disastrous joke. In the aforesaid article, CIMOGG went so far as to state that it was not aware of a single bill that was rushed through in a hurry since Independence that could not have benefited from some months of considered public scrutiny. Adding weight to our contention, the Constitution, too, carries the exhortation that “the State shall strengthen and broaden the democratic structure of Government and the democratic rights of the People … by affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in … Government”.
Why we raise this matter again is to state regretfully that, if the Government had set out for adequate public discussion its proposals for the now temporarily aborted Private Sector Pensions Bill, there would have been less violent challenges to its provisions. The impatience shown by the Government in this instance cannot by any measure be considered untypical. Any moderately discerning person would have to conclude that the Government had some additional undeclared agenda as well, and was determined to leave no time or space for concerned persons and institutions to study the Bill in depth and have it amended suitably. Had there been complete openness shown in this exercise, there would have been no anti-Bill demonstrations, violence, disruptions to the movement of the public at large or the other adverse repercussions on the scale seen recently – including, not least of all, the much-lamented death of a young man and severe injuries to others.
For quite inappropriate comic relief, there is also the perception that the Inspector General of Police has been nominally and conveniently “sacrificed” to cover up the Government’s folly and disregard in riding rough-shod over every objection and all objectors. The IGP’s gesture was devalued instantly when it was revealed that he had only a few days left to retire anyway. It would not surprise us if, after a brief interval, he is given a foreign office posting as compensation for his unprotesting acquiescence.
An equally important reason why Government actions will tend to encourage resort to various degrees of explosive turmoil is the more basic issue of the existence of the 18th Amendment, which has reduced Sri Lanka to a pitiful constitutional dictatorship. At the time of its hurried passage through Parliament, there was not even a pretence that the fundamental requirement for a distinct separation of powers was going to be given any place at all in the Government’s plans. In 2001, Parliament, including the then MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, had voted unanimously for the 17th Amendment – although some MPs later claimed that this amendment was faulty because it had been passed in haste! In late 2010, Parliament abandoned the 17th Amendment and replaced it far more hastily with the 18th Amendment, not unanimously but with only a two-thirds majority. Hence, every MP who voted for the fiendish 18th Amendment may be deemed to have opted to go voluntarily into political slavery, abdicating his or her independence, and unquestioningly agreeing to be subject for ever to the President’s unbounded authority. The terrible result of their actions is that we now have a system of government where the People are compelled to accept without dissent the decisions of one all-powerful person. However persuasively such decisions are paraded before the public by highly paid public relations experts as having been arrived at by the Cabinet and a free Parliament, the truth is otherwise. The factual position is that the People, having delegated their legislative, executive and judicial powers to their representatives, now find their representatives have been converted into puppets who are compelled to do what they are told – and no more and no less. This is surely a prescription for the People to turn to extra-legal methods of protesting to have their voices heard.
Even though 18th Amendment has coloured the sky a deep dark grey against the free exercise of the People’s rights, it is important that the People should not wait to act until another fierce confrontation with the forces of law and order arises. While things are calm, voters should get together into small “neighbourhood” groups and write politely but forcefully to their District MPs, with copies to the freer newspapers, making known their own views regarding the issues of importance to them. Even though one can be almost certain that there will be no acknowledgment or reply, the writing of petitions, done on a more or less regular basis, will definitely have a beneficial impact on our lawmakers’ attitudes in respect of their accountability to the People. If large numbers of voters sign these petitions, even the most thick-skinned MPs will find that these pinpricks swell greatly to become something far more painful. The People’s representatives may thereby be stirred into joint action with their equally power-deprived colleagues to play a more proactive role for the good of the Country.
Readers are probably curious about what exactly could be the reasons, other than the arrogance of power and contempt for the public, which might necessitate keeping the People in the dark about the full details and implications of the Private Sector Pensions Bill. Reading between the lines of newspaper comments on the Bill, the following may be matters which are sought to be kept hidden from the public; but one cannot be sure because they are secrets after all!
One idea is that foreign financial institutions and governments are willing to assist Sri Lanka only provided it increases savings and reduces consumption. A new Pensions Fund would be a step in this direction because the contributions made to it would leave a little less spending money in the hands of the all private sector employees and thus help to swell the State’s coffers. Presumably it would be embarrassing to admit to the public that this is the price to be paid to secure the help that is being sought from the very same IMF, World Bank and the many western powers that get bashed by our “patriots” day in and day out. The second scenario is that, when large sums of money become available to the Government, it would be so exhilarating to be able to splash out freely on the numerous prestigious projects that are in the queue for financing, leaving the next generation to pick up the burden of paying back the capital and interest. Thirdly, of even more interest, perhaps, is that the law could be appropriately formulated so as to permit the moneys collected in the Pension Fund to be invested in public-quoted firms in such massive amounts that it would enable those in power to appoint relatives, friends and sycophants to key positions in these companies and secure for them high emoluments, generous perquisites and extensive undervalued shareholdings, thus strengthening and retaining their loyalties. It may be that all three reasons are simultaneously valid.