According to a recent newspaper report, MP Dinesh Gunawardena has expressed his strong opposition to the number of MPs being increased over and above the present total of 225. Shortly before that, in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 10 May 2015, Professors Emeritus Herbert A.Aponso and Dayantha Wijeyesekera urged strongly that the 225 limit on the number of MPs should not be exceeded. On its part, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has always advocated a smaller Parliament.
All sorts of plausible explanations are offered as the rationale for increasing the number of MPs but the real driving force behind this move is that, by enhancing the number of seats in Parliament, party leaders gain more and more opportunities to exercise their power of patronage over greater numbers of their close followers who plead incessantly to get nominated as election candidates. Inevitably, the expansions of the number of MPs in Parliament have been one of the main factors in the serious decline of the quality of persons elected to it.
By September 2014, CIMOGG had developed, from first principles, a constitution that would provide for power to be shared more meaningfully and autonomously among Grama Niladhari Divisions (GNDs), Pradeshiya Sabhas (PSs), Districts and Parliament, thereby reducing the amount of time spent that Parliament would need to spend on matters that can be handled much better locally. In the CIMOGG proposals, the number of MPs would be limited to 128 because Parliament would be required only to deal with national legislation, allocation of enhanced financial resources to the local units (GNDs, PSs and the Districts), as well as defence, foreign affairs, currency, taxation, national ports and airports, national highways, national standards, national reserves and all those subjects that any single District would not be in a position to handle.
There would be no place for Ministers who would have one foot in Parliament and another in the Ministries, thus badly fouling up the separation of powers. There would be only 25 Permanent Parliamentary Committees (PPCs) plus a corresponding number of Ministries headed by Secretaries who would be required to strictly conform to the projects, programs and budgets authorized by Parliament. Also, because it would not be practical to find enough experts who would want to give up their professions to become MPs, the PPCs would have prequalified groups of experts “on call” to advise them on technical matters on a part-time basis, whenever their services are required. Integrity, intelligence and a commitment to regular attendance, then, would become the main criteria for suitability to be elected to Parliament.
Those interested in reading, without prejudiced mindsets, about these constitutional innovations may email “Ranasinghe”<firstname.lastname@example.org> for a soft copy of the key chapters of the CIMOGG proposals.
Needless to say, politicians and those who are not used to thinking “out of the box” will almost certainly not welcome CIMOGG’s proposed scientific and logical constitutional structure but we remain optimistic in the realisation that, during years that CIMOGG and a few others were shouting themselves hoarse about “good governance”, few in the corridors of power or outside bothered about it. It was only in 2014, after the last Presidential elections were announced, that there was an explosive growth in the frequency of references made by politicians to “good governance” and its vernacular versions, “yahapaalanaya” and “nallaatchi”!
One important feature of the CIMOGG concept is that there would be no need for repeated delimitation exercises, which are supposed to make every vote almost equal to every other. These exercises are thoroughly wasteful and self-deceiving. If we look at Switzerland, which is one of the best governed countries in the world, the cantons have one vote each irrespective of their populations. They do not keep changing their boundaries with every census. More tellingly, if we look at the United Nations, several countries with a population of less than one million each have one vote each whereas China and India, with populations exceeding a billion each, also have only one vote each. Where is the equality of one man-one vote? If it is argued that it is one country-one vote and not one man-one vote, why cannot one existing electorate have just one vote just like any other existing electorate? Or, why cannot one GND have ten votes just like any other GND? The fact is that the delimitations that Sri Lanka has carried out in the past have been pure gerrymandering exercises to satisfy politicians, with no benefit to the people. The politicians involved now seek to make out that they are pressing for delimitation solely because of their overflowing abundance of love of the individual citizens’ rights. This is all eye-wash and the people should, therefore, think twice about giving credence to these philanthropic “democrats”.
An equally important matter, despite any variations in the size of electorates, is how to get good people into our elected bodies, including Parliament. It is now generally recognised that the current system of electing an average of around eight members collectively in each District is bad value for money as far as the public is concerned. There is no question that some form of the first-past-the-post system would place greater pressure on elected officials to fulfill their responsibilities without passing the buck to someone else. Several years ago, a Parliamentary Committee headed by MP Dinesh Gunawardena worked out a scheme that had some features of the old first-past-the-post system as well as some taken from the present system of District-wise preferential voting. Although certain parties in Parliament did not favour this new model, this concept has been revived as the 20th Amendment, but with complex formulas required to achieve the idealistic notion of one man-one vote. These formulas are almost certain, in our opinion, to be incomprehensible to the vast majority of citizens and should be simplified, even if it means that the over-rated one man-one vote principle is ignored to a significant extent.
In order to speed up the process of getting on with elections to get rid of the unviable minority-majority government that we now have, delimitation exercises should be abandoned. Instead, what we see as a perfectly justifiable process would be to go back, say, to the electoral boundaries which were adopted in 1977 before President Jayawardene introduced the District-wise preferential system and accept these boundaries for the 20th Amendment.
The post-1978 electoral processes have done immense harm by preventing citizens from voting for the best candidates by the stipulation that the desired party should be selected first and that three candidates shall be selected thereafter solely from that party’s list. If there is one good candidate in each of three parties, two of them would be deprived of votes that they might otherwise have secured from discerning voters. If not for the current method of electing much riff-raff, under the cover of proportional representation, the type of MPs we have elected from time to time could have been of better quality. We would not have had to witness the spectacle of MPs setting fire within the Parliamentary Chamber to hard copies of constitutional proposals and causing damage to the fittings, equipment and internal finishes (in 2000) or conducting themselves like uncouth street protesters by eating, drinking and sleeping on the floor of the Chamber (2015). As for the bad language used during debates, even in the presence of schoolchildren in the Visitors’ Gallery, we have no record because of the mercifully protective orders of the Speaker and his deputies.
To get better MPs, we suggest the following simple procedure. Subject to the 20th Amendment being passed soon, the Elections Commissioner should be requested to issue each candidate with a simple, short application form to be filled (in all three languages) by candidates, to be sent to the 20,000 or so households in the electorate. The application form would have the name, date of birth, identity card number, address and other contact details, educational background, professional background, latest 10-year employment history, special accomplishments, case numbers of any criminal actions faced in the past or being faced now, social service work carried out, and priorities for action in the electorate. The form shall not exceed in size the two sides of an A4 sheet. Assuming that a completed form can be photostated for Rs6, put in a Rs4 envelope, and furnished with a Rs10 stamp, the total cost for the candidate would be Rs400,000, which represents a fraction of the sums that would be expended on posters, processions, public meetings, media advertisements etc. Candidates would be extremely foolish to declare credentials that they do not possess because there would be many voters in the electorate to expose their lies.
It is up to the public to put pressure on the authorities to get this idea adopted in principle and improved. There is room for civil society activists, if they agree with this procedure, to help refine it and get it implemented.