Colombo Telegraph

Proposals On Constitutional Reforms; Some Observations

By S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

Precursor to Reforms

The current constitution, the way it led to concentration of power and authority in the hands of the uninhibited former President, the unstoppable erosion of citizens’ rights and the evil forces of fascism overtaking those of democracy were creating a veritable spectre. The polity alarmed at this prospect got seriously engaged in stopping it. Reform of the constitution was seen as a way out. To precede it a change of regime was considered most conducive. Now that it has happened, what next?

A serious debate on the parameters of a new constitution or a drastic change in the salient features that were contributing to the earlier malady. The 25 points in the 100 day plan set out though a bit discursively some of the cardinal principles envisaged for promising times. The skeleton needed fleshing up with regard to a new constitution. With a strong mandate enhancing the confidence of the new government, proposals have been formulated with a clothing of authority for people’s participatory engagement.

Eliciting the views of the public through public fora is an innovative precedent for us. The Colombo Telegraph has picked up this initiative for further support. Calling the Maithripala Proposals a Discussion Paper, it set the ball rolling by publishing the Proposals on 9th February. The writer’s lines seek to place the effort in perspective with observations on the proposals..

President

“The President shall always … act on the advice of the Prime Minister”, is prescription to establish the primacy of parliament.

With regard to PM’s Advice and a Bill passed by Parliament, President’s power is limited to only seeking reconsideration. Endorsement follows thereafter.

In the exercise of powers and duties it is specified that the President shall keep on the front burner: national reconciliation and integration; preservation of religious and ethnic harmony and the proper functioning of the Constitutional Council and the independent Commissions. Excellent priorities to nurture a new beginning.

Presidential immunity not extending to acts or omissions is a powerful inhibition against infractions of the law.

Points made and the wording in the Proposals are sagacious.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister being made the Head of Government restores parliamentary democracy.

Appointment of a Deputy Prime Minister – If the need for a DPM be there, it is best done on the advice of the Prime Minister as is recommended.

The proposal veers clearly from the original one made in January for implementation by April 23. Decision making has now been moved away from the vagaries in numbers at the elections to a well deliberated judgment of the President.

At one stroke likely gridlocking in the earlier proposal is avoided and pragmatism has prevailed.

Cabinet of Ministers

Regrettably there is little diminution in the size of the cabinet.

Members of Parliament with Ministerial tag placed at 70 was inordinately high. Raising the bar to an attainable 100 will not be entertained by any citizen as prudent. Cabinet Ministers at 45 instead of 15 as in the sixties, is a trisection of Ministries.

It is not segmenting of authority and wide basing of financial responsibility that capable management demands. Neither does efficiency require it. Unity of command is the need. A compact cabinet is better for effective work and closer surveillance.

The polity will never fail to note that 100 Ministers from a House of 225 make 44% of all MPs. Can any country get ability in such a high number?

Singapore teaches the world that capable Ministers make it plain sailing for other MPs to get elected repeatedly. A smaller cabinet is a boon for non-ministerial MPs.

Provincial Government

The 9 PCs have taken over a share in governance. With this change, the ministerial tag is 45 more and the nation’s total will be 145.

Parliament – A 5 year term is appropriate. Checking capricious and arbitrary dissolution is pragmatic and wholesome.

Constitutional Council and Commissions

Members deemed to be appointed, if President does not appoint following nominations. Fine. It gets over a huge hurdle of derailment through inaction by the Chief Executive.

Council of State

An excellent creation. Institutionalizing a process of recommendation with due procedures for the highest levels of decision making is meaningful.

“Appointees shall be persons of integrity… vocations”. Similar or better sentiments we have heard ad nauseam since independence. When honest action matches high philosophy, the nation’s mood changes. Who will accept dereliction as if men of distinction are not available?

Parliamentary Committees

What is new is throwing open some of the proceedings to members of the public.

About consultative committee meetings, the experience of senior public servants is that parliamentarians are seldom present for a meeting from beginning to end.

Full time participation being made mandatory to warrant the allowance will be an innovation.

Bills

Gazettes used to reach even remote areas a day after publication. Till 1970 it was so from 1948. Accessibility after 2 & 3 weeks has prevailed for a long time. The work of all institutions connected to printing and distribution should be toned up so that even as few as 21 citizens at 1 per million may comment on the Bills. Only then 14 days will have substance.

Audit Service Commission (ASC)

As with SLAS, SLES, etc. Audit Service too can have a Service Minute to embrace all functions specified in para one.

What is the specific reason for ASC to address these issues? Such a step can impart a transitory nature to rules easily amendable by the ASC.

Among others, “Audit” should include Efficiency Audit. Terms and phrases we have had for long, now we must have the substance.

National Procurement Commission

Rules are prescribed and norms are specified for procurement of goods and services. In 5 separate areas a to e; perfect procurement with perfect officials working with perfect timelines to deliver perfect outcomes are envisaged.

Were hypothetical timelines worked out? How much performance is practicable in a financial year of 12 months, with these unrealistic, labyrinthine and bookish rules?

Right to Information

Without question, a citizen has a right to information. The government will have two obligations:

1 Proactive – Each Ministry to host a website in respect of Ministry operations.

Departments, Boards, Corporations and other institutions to have their own individual Websites.

2 Responsive – All queries to be responded to.

Response from the government should be as per the mode used, eg online for online. Facilities should be available for all 3 media at websites. The same rule applies for written communication.

Speed of response should be as per the electronic age.

The above prescriptions need to be incorporated in the Right to Information legislation.

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