There are multiple mechanisms through which a parliamentarian can engage with the house, to take forward his responsibility as a representative of the people. But some of those opportunities are dominated by only a very few. “Just 5 of the 225 MPs ask two-thirds of all the ‘written questions’ in Parliament”, says the Verite Research.
Verite Research’s Manthri.lk is an online platform that allows activities of MPs to be evaluated. According to its data, in the 16 months from 1 May 2012 to 31 August 2013, 952 written questions were asked in Parliament – which means about 60 questions a month and 7 to 8 questions on each sitting day of Parliament.
To explain another way, just 5 MPs (the “gladiators”) ask twice as many questions as all the other 220 MPs combined!
As shown in the figure, the five “gladiators” are all from the UNP. (Manthri.lk has previously analysed parliamentary petitions, where government MPs dominate).
The “gladiators” in order of “written questions” performance are: John Amaratunga, Buddhika Pathirana, Ravi Karunanayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Sajith Premadasa. (Jayasekera has now resigned his seat).
Purpose of the “Written Question” Method: The purpose of the mechanism of “written questions” is explained in section 29 (1) of the standing orders of Parliament: “The proper object of a question is to obtain information on a matter of fact within the special cognizance of the Minister to whom it is addressed or to urge that action be taken.”
This comes under the section of “Public Business” in Parliament, where an MP, acting on behalf of the public is able to present a case, elicit information and urge action that is of interest to the public from the relevant government ministers and the bureaucracy.
The Weakness of “Written Question” Method: The weakness is in the process adopted by the standing orders. First, because the time spent on written questions on any given day is limited to just half an hour (even though in practice it is often an hour), not too many questions can be dealt with properly on a given day; second, because the questions are dealt with on a first-come, first-served basis (subject to a limit of three questions a day from a single MP), a few MPs can easily clog up the pipeline and dominate the system by filing a large number of questions at once.
These weaknesses maybe something that members of Parliament should seek to rectify by suitably amending the standing orders. But for now, the “gladiators” of the “written questions” arena have shown how the system can be used to maximum effect!