By Somapala Gunadheera –
Organized employment systems have a set age for retirement. That is but a natural outcome of the basic rules of biological decay. The compulsory age of retirement for public servants is 60. The judicial service has its own limit for retirement which falls a few years later. Even the private sector is governed by a predetermined limit to a service. Of course the self-employed have no such compulsion. They decide when to call it a day intuitively, depending on such factors as physical fitness and returns on investment. In any case, politics is not self-employment. It is supposed to be a service rendered to the nation by public-spirited volunteers. If they mean well, they owe it to their conscience to quit when they are no longer physically fit to do their job satisfactorily, particularly in the presence of thousands, fiddle fit to take on.
Politicians are not governed by retirement limits. Most of them keep returning until they are finally thrown out by the electorate. That happens only after the voters reach the end of their tether. In the meantime, public interest does not receive the optimum benefit from the investment of public funds to keep such hangers on tottering. It was only the other day that Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the Leader of the JVP, remarked that some members of Parliament need the assistance of their colleagues to reach the seats assigned to them. When we joined the public service, in the prime of our youth, we had to submit a certificate of fitness from a qualified doctor but the most decrepit candidate is not called upon to produce an MC with his nomination papers.
Of course there are politicians who started young but they had not got a proper chance to get involved with the administration of the country, as their Party had been in the opposition for quite a long time. They were not inactive during that period but age has overtaken them by the time they got a chance to govern. It is unfair to write them off now ignoring their past contributions to the Party. But accommodating them at the expense of efficiency is unfair by the people. This dichotomy presents a challenge to political leadership. It is for them to devise a method by which both ends could be served satisfactorily.
The last regime tried to solve the problem by creating a cadre of senior ministers, ostensibly, to accommodate the seniors but the devise did not benefit either the country or the seniors themselves who had to vegetate in a glorified asylum. All members in the pool were not equally old, while there were much older members remaining in the House. Presumably, it was a devise of convenience. The real challenge today is to create space for the veterans to be in the limelight without detriment to the national interest.
This difficulty basically arises from the glorification of the post of minister, through excessive highlighting of the post, adding unlimited power to rule at will. Such power was at the bottom of irregularities for which charges have been since levelled. Perhaps this concentration of power may be relaxed by the current proposal to create inter-Party committees to advise on government activity and to coordinate action. An overage politician who deserves retention may be an asset to these committees with the wealth of his experience. An appropriate position in the new system may be sufficient compensation for the loss of a post in which the recipient cannot perform adequately. The task before leadership is to ensure that such position is not made an appendix overshadowed by ministers who should necessarily be young enough to manage an efficient and effective administration.
The glory attached to a minister arises from two sources. One of them is excessive publicity given to the post under the current system. The proposed committee system may help to diffuse this concentration. The other source is the wide disparity between ordinary MPs and ministers in regard to remuneration, facilities and perks. The ideal would be a uniform system of rewards among all members of Parliament, subject to the provision of minimum facilities for extra services rendered by a particular member. After all, ministers are not paid employees as observed above. They have come forward to render public service. Why then should there be a gap between stipends paid to them and MPs? Surely, no minister will resign on the ground of inadequate remuneration.
However the shoe could pinch at the point of equalization of inputs. According to rules as they are, this revolutionary change has to be made by the very people who may be adversely affected by it. A native proverb admonishes that one should not consult the thief’s mother for a prediction on lost property. How would it be if the thief himself was consulted? For this reason, equality reforms suggested cannot be introduced over the counter.
Phenomenal expenses incurred by contestants at the last election, resulting in the most adverse comment made by international observers, has its roots in the over glorification of positions and their vulnerability to corruption. Fixing an age of retirement for Parliamentarians is yet another problem that cannot be solved by parties affected by the proposed changes. Both of these issues will have to await the much canvassed formulation of a new Constitution where problems would be handled from a national point of view by experts who are not moved by personal interest. For the time being, temporary solutions have to be worked out by the inter-Party consensus that the PM plans to build up in the new Parliament.
There is another matter that needs mention in passing. That pertains to the formation of the new cabinet of ministers, in the background of past experience. Doubtlessly, the ministers appointed ought to be the best talent available in relation to the respective areas. But even such talent has to be overlooked in the public interest, where it becomes necessary to avoid a clash of interests or a temperamental misfit.