By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
At best, the recent news item of a proposal by the Prime Minister to set up an office for Ethics and Morality to halt the erosion of ethics in our society, is reason for amusement. Why does our Prime Minister feel the common man needs the assistance of a special office to improve their ethics and morality? Is there any other group in this country requiring greater and more urgent assistance in improving their ethics and morality than our politicians starting with the 225 specimen in Parliament? Should not the ‘code of conduct’ for parliamentarians, which would have involved ethics and morality, promised by the ‘Yahapalanaya’ proponents almost on a daily from November 2014 till 09 January 2015 receive priority?
One is intrigued. In the Oxford dictionary, the word Ethics is explained ‘Moral principles that a person’s behavior or the conduct of an activity’ and the word Morality as ‘Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior’.
It would be futile to even think of Ethics and Morality during the days from 2010 till January 08, 2015. It was non-existent. What would be of relevance in today’s context is the ethics and morality of those who ousted a regime totally devoid of ethics and morality, in January and August 2015, with the assistance of a naïve electorate. Regrettably, the electorate’s was a Hobson’s choice.
Democratic traditions demand, the Head of State call upon the party leader able to command a majority in parliament, to form a government. The first act of the newly elected ‘Yahapalanaya’ President, immediately after being sworn in as President, was to invite the then Leader of Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a government. Democratic traditions also demand a vote of confidence be taken in parliament no sooner the invited party leader has succeeded in forming a government. He or she is required to demonstrate the ability to command a majority in parliament required for governance. Had it been the case in January 2015, the newly appointed Prime Minister would have reverted to his previous position of Leader of Opposition on that day.
Ethics and morality based governance would have called for snap elections or at the latest after the 100 day program. In the light of the proposal to set up an office for ethics and morality, was the decision to do away with a vote of confidence for over six months ethically and morally correct?
Rightly or wrongly, Britain is known as the cradle of democracy where it all began with the Magna Carta in 1215. Britain, unlike Sri Lanka has a constitutional monarch. Prime Ministers are voted into and out of office with some resigning mid-term. Yet another tradition since 1900 is that of Prime Ministers voted out of office voluntarily resigning from party leadership, not contesting another election for premiership and limiting his/her role to that of a back bench MP in case he/she retains a parliamentary seat. The three unopposed exceptions were Sir Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin and Harold Wilson due to extenuating circumstances. Even party leaders in the opposition quit their party leadership after losing an election.
Sri Lanka, unfortunately never developed such a tradition from the time of independence. Defeated Prime Ministers (and now a President) have simply refused to fade away. Is it ethically and morally correct for electorally defeated Prime Ministers to continue to hold on to party leadership and subsequently contest for the Presidency and Premiership or be appointed to the office of the Prime Minister?
Similarly, ethics and morality goes out of the window when candidates rejected by the people are appointed to Parliament through the National List and to the Cabinet of Ministers, as well as the appointment of friends and relations to high positions in the state sector without ascertaining their suitability in terms of qualifications, experience and integrity.
It is often stated, not everything is black and white. In addition, there are different shades of grey. That applies to the commercial world and in international relations when national interests take precedence. However, Ethics and Morality cannot and should not be turned and twisted to suit political expediency. Neither should right and wrong as well as good and bad.
The list goes on. What is the purpose that would be served by the establishment of an Office of Ethics and Morality? Would the beneficiaries be a few friends and relatives receiving allowances, vehicles and other perks at state expense? Would it not be more meaningful and effective for our current leaders to set the desired standards by example?
French dramatis Jean-Anouilh said “Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law”. Similarly, nobody has a more sacred obligation to uphold ethics and morality than those who preach such ideals to others.