By Lacille de Silva –
The wrong people teach us best lessons. As a clever Nation, we had always used our ballot and chased wrong people away, when they nose-dived. Despite a few progressive steps taken, such as improved democratic space, MS/RW government is a good case study for bad governance. There is disappointment and disillusionment all over. They have wasted three years in office. In Parliament too, there appears to be big-time confusion. If the promised political reforms had been carried out credibly, i.e., the abolition of Executive Presidency, elimination of corruption, returning to parliamentary system of governance etc., all that could have created a significant impact on the State, the culture of impunity and governance.
The government failed to consider the need to look into promised economic revival, creation of employment, reduction of cost of living. They ignored confidence building measures while moving forward. The government also delayed local government elections, which has subsequently resulted in a political impasse, which is also a creation by choice unwisely. They furthermore began changing the ‘political will’ to investigate high-profile corruption cases and their mindset of taking legal action against perpetrators even before the expiry of the first year in office. The first step in that direction, was my removal from PRECIFAC w. e .f 1st March 2016. All these, no doubt was ‘political bungling’ and had now bounced back on the government causing irreparable damage.
The legislative process in Sri Lanka is based on constitutional provisions and the Standing Orders adopted by the Parliament in terms of Article 74 of the Constitution. Standing Orders are the rules and guidelines for conducting the day to day business of the House, in an orderly manner. In Parliament, the Speaker, who is expected to act with impartiality and authority, on the guidance of the Secretary-General, should not allow the members to engage in politics. Parliamentary politics is necessarily permitted only if members fall in line with the rules, regulations and practices of parliamentary procedure.
Speaker has the power to rule members for “unparliamentary” language and conduct and suspend a members when they disobey the orders wilfully – which is commonly called naming. Parliamentary practice is inherently procedural. Since we follow our mother Parliament, being a Westminster model parliamentary system, we need to rely greatly for reference and apply the processes etc., in the “Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usages of Parliament” by the Secretary-General on a daily basis. And it is not meant to be kept under the pillow. It is an essential tool for understanding the foundational concepts of parliamentary practice and procedure and seek guidance on a regular basis. Why don’t they apply the guidelines therein and prevent the parliamentary system from decay and destruction?
Thomas Erskine May (1815 – 1886), who had joined the House Commons, in the United Kingdom, as Assistant Librarian in 1831 (at the age of sixteen) had risen up through the ranks, having eventually ended up, as the most senior official, the Clerk of the House (1871 – 1886). He had been nominated to the staff by the then Mr. Speaker Manners Sutton. Treatise written by May, had been venerated with biblical solemnity, since it was first published in 1844.
The Treatise had subsequently ceased to be the work of May. It is now an expression of the collective wisdom of the Clerks throughout the history. It is also an account of developments that had taken place in parliamentary practice and procedure. The Clerks since the first identified Clerk of the House of Commons could be described as multi-tasked doyens, such as advice-giver to the Speaker, the Chief Executive Officer – a technocrat, to say the least. In Sri Lanka too, we continued with the same designation and was subsequently re-designated, in order to add more glamour and prestige, as Secretary-General of Parliament.
May had strongly supported the rhetorical view of Parliament as an exemplary deliberative assembly, and had praised the freedom of debate in the Westminster Parliament. Rules of Parliament had been designed to afford every legitimate opportunity for discussions, freedom of debate, generous regard for liberty of individual members, tolerance, within the walls of Parliament. He had added that the members nevertheless could be interrupted during the debate by crying “Order!” “Order!” if the debate is not in line with the procedure.
I have seen with my own eyes having been so very fortunate to serve the Parliament Secretariat for nearly three and a half decades what happened and who destroyed the Supreme Institution – Parliament. In the first place, the Opposition became week and opportunistic after the promulgation of the Executive Presidential system. The governments in power altered the structures and the systems quoting the war under emergency rule, which lasted several decades. Flood gates had been opened to ruffians to enter politics. Party leadership overlooked and water-down the need to develop the fundamentals to ensure efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, responsiveness, transparency of the Supreme Institution – Parliament.
Politics became a lucrative business. The new breed of politicos began showing a dislike and an indifference towards their parliamentary duties. Absenteeism in Committees became a very regular occurrence. They began defecting their parties for money and ministerial positions. They started using ill-gotten money in politics, the underworld and muscle power because they lacked morality, character and decency. Nevertheless, as trustees of people’s combined aspirations, Parliamentarians have a responsibility to forge new tools, develop new mechanisms and espouse human right causes too. As emissaries of democracy, parliamentarians should also exercise oversight, accountability and transparency of both governmental and non-governmental spheres and ensure that both State and non-State actors do not waver from commitment to a human rights regime.
For this purpose, primarily, we need the Speaker, the Secretary-General of Parliament, the Leader of the House, Chief Government Whip, Leader of the Opposition and most importantly the Prime Minister to initiate action to remove archaic procedures for a paradigm shift in order to strengthen legitimacy of peoples’ representatives and the elected government. At a huge cost, infrastructure was also provided for televising the proceedings, which too had been abandoned or curtailed. Reforms in my view are a sine qua non for making the Parliament effective and strong enough to achieve sustainable growth and development. They have misused their powers totally and failed to uplift the living standards of the citizens.
Shouldn’t these be reviewed from Parliament Secretariat itself? This can be achieved only if the Secretary-General of Parliament devotes his maximum time, effort and energy to constantly review the gamut of its procedures, processes and operations to guard against breakdown and decay from time to time. I am sad the Parliament Secretariat is worryingly bureaucratic, excessively wasteful, heavily compartmentalized, pathetically mismanaged, sloppily unfocussed and totally disoriented. It is noteworthy, I began reforms, during my days and it has now been shelved. When I enquired from the former Speaker I was told – “I cannot do that, I am a politician”. It is therefore a heavily neglected institution due to bureaucratic bungling. The most hilarious situation is the fact that the need for reforms in the Parliament Secretariat has been approved, about a decade ago, by the Staff Advisory Committee, an all-powerful committee, comprising Speaker (Chairman), Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and a few more.
Parliament has also not used disciplinary and penal powers over unruly members for years. These powers have been granted to maintain discipline and to ensure sole control over all aspects of its own affairs to determine for itself the procedures. The Parliament has unquestioned authority to ensure parliamentary independence to serve the country and the people. All that is on paper in the Constitution and in other rule books and not beyond.
Parliament is a unique institution. It possesses in-built powers to deal with anyone, who interferes or interrupt it’s legitimate functions to carry out its duties and responsibilities. I give below a few interferences that could be considered and dealt with as contempt of Parliament:
- Interrupting or disturbing the proceedings in the House;
- Assaulting, threatening, obstructing, or intimidation a member or an officer in the House;
- Deliberately misleading the House by way of a speech etc.;
- Deliberately publishing a false or misleading report of the proceedings of the House;
- Removing the Mace or a property of the House without authority;
- Deliberately suppressing information/documents required to be tabled in the House;
- Refusing to answer a question/provide information/ produce documents etc., required by the House;
- Disobeying a lawful order of the House;
- Giving/accepting bribes to change sides/parties;
It is important to understand that the Parliament itself has created a culture of impunity, within its precincts. Owing to all these shortcomings there is public cynicism towards the Parliament and the peoples’ representatives. This is an unsatisfactory situation. Parliament belongs to the people. Parliament does not belong to MPs, Speaker or the Secretary-General. Parliament is the mouthpiece and the link between the government and the citizens. Without personal and institutional accountability, could the government credibly promote challenges before the country. It appears no effort has been made to find out the root causes that had eroded the respect and dignity that Parliament had earned during the days of our forefathers.
There is no gainsaying the fact that in a society corrupt to the core, only few – the conniving and the powerful – continue to enrich themselves. The poor become poorer. On the contrary, in a morally sane, countries like Australia, all who work hard, dedicated, capable and disciplined can always make it to the top. It is unfortunate even in the Parliament secretariat such talented men are overlooked. Shouldn’t the parliament secretariat commence rewarding people based on their merit without any further delay?
We need an army of politicians and an outfit of administrators with the passion who think that in Sri Lanka they have a responsibility, which is vast and intricate to take the country forward. Being a developing country for decades, where the majority does not get the minimum number of calories, their entitlements such as education, health etc., the big men in politics and in top positions in the public sector should not gobble up the little men without any justification or mercy. Dr. Abdul Kalam had said “Government money is people’s money. Don’t waste it. It is destructive. The country does not deserve anything less than success from us, let us aim for success”.