The President travels rather frequently abroad, presumably on account of having to deal with bilateral and multilateral issues that require stronger representation than at the level of the Minister of External Affairs. Undeniably, it is the President’s prerogative to decide on whether his own personal inputs are required in any particular instance. No one else is empowered to question his judgment on these matters other than the Nations’ voters at the next Presidential elections. Nevertheless, there are aspects pertaining to these journeys that are of genuine and lawful public interest – for example, how many trips the President has been compelled to make, who went with him, what was the substance of the discussions held, what were the beneficial outcomes of such discussions, and what were the costs incurred. The queries raised in Parliament in this connection have been perfectly legitimate and, to the best of our knowledge, they have not contained any reference to the conduct, proper or improper, of the President or any other extraneous matter.
The first aspect that needs to be looked at is that Parliament has a constitutional duty and, in theory, the powers required to exercise control over public finances. In keeping with this responsibility, concerned Members of Parliament have, on several occasions, quite conscientiously sought information on the overseas visits that the President has made to so many countries to deal with matters which are apparently beyond the joint capability of the Minister/EA, the Ministry of External Affairs and our overseas missions, who are paid huge sums out of public funds to attend to such work.
The second point that we should like to make is that the more the President does of the work of the Minister/EA, the worse it reflects on the competence of the latter. The public is entitled to be given a count of how often the President has thus displayed openly his lack of confidence in his own Minister/EA. At the very least, this information would prove quite useful to the public – for example, if the Minister/EA were to come forward later as a candidate for election, the public would be better able to decide whether it would not be a waste to vote for someone like him who is held in such low esteem by his own boss. Of course, there is always the National List!
When a composite query on this matter was last raised in Parliament, the initial response of the Government had been to ask for more time to answer it but, after having made full use of this barely disguised delaying tactic, it (the Government) appears to have had second thoughts about providing any of the details called for, thus giving the public the inescapable impression that it is apprehensive about such revelations becoming public knowledge. In order to justify this new stance, the Chief Government Whip, Mr Dinesh Gunawardena, who had been “handed the baby” to hold, had come out with a novel and quite ridiculous answer. To all intents and purposes, what he had said was that probing into this subject would raise issues regarding the “conduct of the President” and, therefore, the Opposition’s questions were inadmissible and no answers would be forthcoming without a substantive motion referring to the President’s conduct being submitted.
When Parliament asks for details of who went with the President on his various tours abroad, is there any reason to keep secret the names of those who accompanied him to give advice, to provide security, and to look after his personal requirements? None, we are sure, that any reasonable person would recognize. Hence, we are mystified by what seems to be an irrational fear on the part of the Government to be open in its interactions with the public. Additional doubts that arise are: “Why does the Minister/EA pass the buck to the Chief Government Whip? Does this lack of faith in himself not justify the President in placing a low value on his (the Minister/EA’s) performance?
In a CIMOGG article that was published in January 2010, we referred to the fact that the Supreme Court had on 3 May 2007 castigated Mr Gunawardena and the then Minister of Public Security for having misled the Cabinet on two important matters. Mr Gunawardena seems now to have widened his repertoire to misleading both Parliament itself and the public by claiming that perfectly straightforward inquiries regarding the President’s trips abroad would reflect adversely on the President’s conduct. In fact, by refusing to furnish the Opposition and the public with an acceptable answer, it is he who is implying that an examination of the President’s expenditures would reflect badly on the President’s conduct. Or is it that Mr Gunawardena knows something more that he would rather keep to himself?
In this context, the Speaker is reported to have opined that there is nothing wrong with disclosing to the House the data called for. This is powerful support indeed for proper disclosure. We applaud the Speaker for this intervention.
Had there been an effective Right to Information law, anyone could have secured the details sought by the Opposition without having to put up with the prevarications of the Minister/EA and the Government Chief Whip. But, then, we remember that the President explained some time ago that there is no need for such a law because all that anyone has to do is to ask him personally for any required information! Consequently, as concerned citizens, we urge the members of the Opposition in Parliament to address their queries directly to the President without having to be disappointed by the delaying tactics of the Minister/EA and the Government Chief Whip. What better invitation can Opposition MPs hope for or want?