Jan 17

In last Sunday’s issue of this journal, we gave examples of how very little time and dedication most of our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Ministers devote to the work that they should be doing in Parliament.  Owing to limitations of space, we were not able then to indicate how this undesirable state of affairs, which covers only one aspect of a much larger and more worrying picture, could be rectified.  The nub of the matter is that, in order that Sri Lanka may revert to a genuine democracy, there is a desperate need for a new type of Constitution.  Of the many important features to be addressed before a new Constitution can be properly framed, just a few are mentioned below.

Sri Lanka’s successive Constitutions have enabled politicians to grab for themselves most of the People’s powers.  They have not hesitated to use unlawful means to enrich themselves, and their relatives, friends and supporters at the expense of the People.  “Fundamental rights” has become an unwelcome concept, with reluctant attention given to it in practice.  Our Constitutions have never had watertight provisions to nab those who rob State and private assets, misuse and waste State resources, collect protection money, employ violence against opponents and defenceless citizens, and commit other crimes.  This flaw needs to be corrected but it cannot be done by tinkering with the existing Constitution.  The reliable way out of this morass is to have a careful analysis carried out and solutions worked out from first principles so that the weaknesses of past Constitutions do not find their way back again into a new one.

Hardly anybody seems to be worried by the fact that, on average, fewer than half of our 225 Members of Parliament attend its sittings on a regular basis.  To add to the waste of resources, the quorum for meetings of the House is only 20 MPs.  Hence, there is every justification for proposing that a new Constitution need not have more than about one-half of the present total of 225 MPs.  In this connection, it may be noted that we extravagantly have one MP per 90,000 or so of the population whereas India, our nearest neighbour, has only one representative per 1,100,000 of the population.  Furthermore, as the Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka, after careful study, has recommended that we should have no more than 25 Ministries, it would be sensible in future to have, apart from the Speaker and two deputies, no more than 125 MPs who would be assigned to 25 Permanent Parliamentary Committees, which would be required to study in depth the issues pertaining to their associated Ministries.  MPs should not be allowed to treat their job in Parliament as a part-time source of tax-free income, unearned perquisites and undeserved prestige.  A fair day’s work should be a compulsory condition.  There is little evidence to show that, with a few exceptions, our MPs are above average in intelligence or ability.  Thus, it would not be difficult to provide suitable incentives to attract more capable and conscientious persons to become MPs on a more or less full-time basis.

At present, a citizen who wishes to come forward as a candidate for election must secure the approval of the king-makers in one of the political parties; he must have influential family, caste, race, religious and, often, underworld connections; he should satisfy the party that he has the ability to secure funding from rich financial backers, without regard to how they make their money; and he must also declare unquestioning loyalty and unqualified obedience to the party’s leaders.  Thus, the Constitution does nothing to hinder the election of mostly unsuitable persons to Pradeshiya Sabhas, Provincial Councils, Parliament and other elected bodies.

Instead of committing ourselves to a Constitution that would perpetuate a system which empowers a small clique in each of the political parties to select largely unfit persons as candidates for election, a mechanism needs to be developed that would, say, enable each Grama Niladhari Division (GND) to elect about ten People’s Representatives on personal merit and allow only those who have gone through this first stage of selection to contest elections to the Pradeshiya Sabhas, in what would effectively be a second stage of selection.  The third stage of selection would be to the nine Provincial Councils or, preferably, to twenty-five District Councils.  Election to Parliament would take place in a fourth stage of selection.  At each successive stage of this type of selection, which does not rely on improper influence, the quality of those going through to the next stage will improve.  Thus, merit will gain the importance that it deserves.

A person wishing to be elected as a People’s Representative should be required to complete (in his preferred language) a 2-page application form, issued by the Elections Commission in three languages, giving his name, age, address, last school attended, last exam passed, any professional qualifications, work experience, social service activities and, very briefly, his most important priorities for action in the GND and the Pradeshaya in which the GND is located.  The candidate would get his entries in the form translated into the other two languages.  He would then arrange for the completed forms to be delivered to each of the 400-600 households of his GND.  The whole exercise will not cost him more than a few thousand rupees.  Later stages will cost even less.  Refunding such costs by the State could well turn out to be a rich investment.

If, furthermore, the Constitution were to forbid the use of posters, newspaper and TV advertising, loudspeakers, public meetings, processions and other forms of promotion – as is the practice in several, successful democratic countries – there would be no need for candidates to go behind crooks to collect large funds to contest elections.  There would be no election violence and hardly any disruption to the life of the citizenry.  Thus, competent, hardworking, responsible and independent-minded citizens of limited means, including most women and young persons, would be able, without difficulty or fear, to seek election, initially as People’s Representatives from their own GNDs and strive to go on to Pradeshiya Sabhas, District Councils and Parliament..

An alternative system that would lead to a similar improvement in the quality of our elected representatives may certainly be given careful consideration.

Other than those few who would want, for their personal benefit, to continue to exploit their connections to the centre of power, almost everyone else who has an understanding of good governance and the Rule of Law would long to see an end to the Executive Presidency and the 18th Amendment.  This has to be achieved by the steady build-up of public opinion so that Sri Lanka will be able to emerge from the deep abyss into which it has been painfully plunged for far too long.

The abolition of the Executive Presidency and the repeal of the 18th Amendment will not, by themselves, be enough to achieve the necessary degree of the separation of powers that is essential.  The restraining of the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary from interfering with each other’s legitimate functions must be made properly effective by not allowing the anomalous situation where entities called “Ministers” have one foot in the Legislature and one foot in the Executive and are given the freedom to enrich themselves unjustly and also get laws passed that undermine constitutionally sound decisions made by the Judiciary.

Another reason why there should not be Ministers of any kind is the manner in which they have taken thousands of arbitrary and secret decisions in the past, without benefit of open, in-depth discussion by experts and legislators.  These have led to serious difficulties and losses for the People of this Country.  A few of the most recent examples are Z-scores, Year 5 scholarship exams, permitting gambling outside the law and collecting taxes by way of “licensing fees”, mucking around with the specifications that should apply to petroleum imports and hedging against oil price fluctuations.  As for Norochcholai, the less said the better.  Responsibility for presenting the facts on any issue should be the responsibility of Ministry Secretaries but they should then be studied by the relevant Permanent Parliamentary Committees with inputs from independent specialist advisors before any project is approved and funds are allocated.  The freedom of information must be fostered so as to nip in the bud crimes against the People’s interests.

There is no reason to think that the Sri Lankan body politic is so uniquely sound that it would be permanently immune to a strong build-up of widespread pressure for change.  If and when public demand for drastic improvement escalates to the point where it can no longer be ignored, a ready-made Constitution, based entirely on non-partisan concepts, would help to mould a consensus quickly.  To the pessimists in our midst, we recall that Mandela said:  “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.  So, there is no reason to be despondent.

Jan 14

Whilst the Sri Lankan public is aware that there are some Members of Parliament (MPs) who do try to bring to the notice of the Government problems faced by the public, those MPs who do not care two cents for the welfare of the People far outnumber the conscientious and caring ones.  Unhappily, our citizens have continued to accept without protest the reality that a large number of our MPs (including Ministers) do not attend Parliament regularly or only show their faces for a few minutes in the Chamber, presumably so that they can collect their attendance allowances.

The Speaker has, on several occasions, remarked on the remissness of Ministers and non-Ministerial Members of Parliament who disregard their obligation to the citizens who elected them to be their representatives.  Too numerous to count have been the occasions when Ministers have not been present to answers questions addressed to them.  Shamelessly, they have got into the habit of leaving it to the Leader of the House or the Chief Government Whip to trot out some kind of an answer.  In another case of irresponsibility, not very long ago, Ms Gamini Lokuge, T.B.Ekanayake, Arundika Fernando and Wasantha Senanayake, who had indicated that they wanted to present petitions were not present in the Chamber on the allotted date.  The Speaker was most emphatically not pleased.  This is just one of many such instances.  It demonstrates the contempt that so many Ministers and MPs have for the People, paying scant regard to the fact that it the People who pay them – and that, too, more than handsomely in cash and in kind.  That is, without taking into account the ample opportunities empowered MPs have “to make a little bit on the side”.

The scant respect shown to the public by Ministers and MPs is seen in the way in which they have been riding roughshod over the public’s rights and convenience in so many ways but most visibly when they decide to bulldoze their way through the traffic on our public roads.  In this connection, we are reminded of a well-publicized report of a couple of months back that an MP’s vehicle had hit a wild boar at a speed of around 160km/h.  We have heard nothing further about any action that might have been taken against him.  Was he given protection from prosecution under “blanket presidential immunity”, not to mention “impunity”?  Did this immunity extend to his driver as well?  Is the MP not to be held responsible for not warning his driver to conform to the speed limits that all the rest of us have to respect?  What was the urgent matter that required him to put at such great risk the multitude of road users that he must have passed on this “life-saving” journey that completely tore apart a powerful wild boar into two pieces which were flung into the distance?  It could very well have been an innocent pedestrian (or two or many more of them) who was violently dissected into several pieces.  Happily – but not for the wild boar – the incident ended as it did.  Would it be too much to ask our Police Spokesperson to tell us where the Police draws the line between criminal culpability and immunity in this and similar instances?

If one were to carry out even a superficial analysis of the number of hours spent each year by MPs on matters of concern to the public, it would show us how many of them are, to all intents and purposes, cheating the People by not devoting enough time to constructive discussion and consideration of the problems faced by citizens.  The unending torrents of quite irrelevant and crude personal attacks or salacious remarks that are thrown across the floor of the Chamber can hardly be counted as serious contributions made for the welfare of the People.  Sailors, who are proverbially credited with a facility for colourful language, would find that they could learn a thing or two from our Parliamentarians.

We have an ageing MP castigating the Indian Prime Minister, who is younger than he by a few years, as a naakiya, which may freely be translated as “a doddering old man”!  This MP continued with his tirade by referring to the UK Prime Minister as a kaalakanniya, which means “miserable wretch”.  He described President Obama as a kalla, namely “a black fellow”.  Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was diagnosed as having thala thel flowing in his veins, thus accusing him of being a lover of Tamils who are popularly believed to use sesame (gingelly) oil for cooking and on their hair.  It has been reported that our formerly respected Professor of Law, in his incarnation as Minister of External Affairs, was present at the time but did not seem in the least troubled by these obnoxious appellations.  In any event, does not reconciliation require that citizens of different ethnic and religious groups should give up their hate-filled rhetoric and learn to love each other a little bit as Ranil Wickremasinghe is being faulted for doing?

Let us now look at the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), which is one of most important entities in Parliament.  It is required to oversee – or, more accurately, to carry out “post-mortems” – on the functioning of a large number of State institutions.  How well do its members perform?

We have had a few hardworking and conscientious MPs who have been the Chairmen of COPE, which now has a membership of 31 or so.  Particular mention may be made of the late Mr Bernard Soyza, Mr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Mr D.E.W.Gunasekera.  But what about the performance of the other members?  Unfortunately, we do not have access to the detailed records of the contributions made by the members of COPE to its deliberations.  Nevertheless, a brief peek at the latest Press reports indicate that only a small fraction of the total membership had attended over 50 per cent of the 100 or so meetings held in 2012/2013.  By name, these dutiful MPs were M/s D.E.W.Gunasekera, Mahinda Amaraweera, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Dayasiri Jayasekera (now resigned), A.H.M.Azwer, A.Vinayagamoorthy, Eran Wickremaratne and Sarana Gunawardena.  As for outright malingering, the first prize goes jointly to M/s S.M.Chandrasena, Weerakumara Dissanayaka, Atureliye Ratana Thera and E.Saranavanapavan, who did not attend even one meeting out of the total of 100.

Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Mr Chandrasiri Gajadeera and Mr M.T.Hasan Ali managed the Herculean effort of attending one meeting each!  Mr Namal Rajapaksa managed to participate in three meetings.  As an ambitious young MP, he should realize that he will have to do much better than that to earn the trust of the populace.  Mr Mervyn Silva and Susil Premajayantha were present at four meetings each.  Ms Rosy Senanayake outdid these six MPs by gracing all of five meetings.

To some extent, one may attribute some of this underperformance to the perception that the majority of MPs belonging to the Government are not expected to think but only to provide support as noisily as possible so that the Opposition’s contributions are drowned.  In the midst of all the yelling, there is a Member who, in his apparent keenness to demonstrate his loyalty to his patrons, insists on popping-up like a jack-in-the box to reveal his intimate, but highly unproductive, knowledge of Standing Orders.  It may not be too wild a guess to suggest that he wastes more Parliamentary time than any other MP.

Some of the MPs not only behave in a deplorable manner in Parliament, where they are protected by Parliamentary privilege, but also outside.  A married MP whose notoriety in snatching journalists’ cameras, tying indefensible public servants to trees, attacking the genitals of a monk and goodness knows what else, managed to outdo himself by gaining international exposure by offering to take as his wife a highly placed United Nations official.  He did not indicate what he would do with his lawfully-wedded wife nor did he consider how adversely his proposal would affect the view that reasonable people both here and abroad would come to form about Sri Lanka’s governance, its legislators and its People.