By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
The recent transfer of the Customs Chief, Ms Charles stirred a hornet’s nest and led to Trade Union uproar, protesting against this officer’s transfer and replacement by a retired Naval Officer. The feeble and laughable “reason” by an important big-wig is that the retired Naval Officer was because a major duty for the Customs is to prevent smuggling, which is mainly by sea, the appointment of a man with “Naval Experience” is justifiable! It would be interesting to see how far this kite would fly!
We are often reminded that there are “three pillars” of democratic governance – The Executive, Legislative and The Judiciary. In our context The Executive means the Presidency, the Legislative means Parliament, and the Judiciary means the Law enforcing body. The “Administration” has no place. I believe that this division is not the best. Considering the Presidency as such, merely because the title includes the word “Executive” is illogical. The verb “execute” means to perform, carry out, effect, operate, implement etc. the laws and directions of the Legislative. This in effect, is that arm which we refer to as the “Administration.” This is the sector which interacts most with the public. The “Presidency” should really reside within the “Legislative”. After all, he is the Head of State, Head of the Cabinet, (and a Political Party). Since many decisions and Laws require his formal approval, he/she is logically part of the Legislature. He thereby has the opportunity to listen to debates to help evaluate the merits or demerits of proposed New Laws. This gives meaning to the constitutional requirement that he should attend Parliament at least once every three months. Symbolically, when the President is present in the House, the Prime Minister vacates his chair for him/her. The functions of the Judiciary are relatively clear. Its function is to deal with matters referred to it to determine whether actions or intent are consistent with the Constitution and existing Laws. It is also the authority from whom aggrieved citizens may seek relief when they consider that administrative acts infringe their rights.
In my estimation, it is the administration (= Executive) that needs improvement. The Judiciary is in comparatively good order. The Legislative is perhaps beyond repair (major surgery to address dysfunctional growths is the sole option).
It is in the interest of all of us that the administration should be restructured. It is the major point of interaction between governance and the citizenry. To anyone who takes a close look, there are three main functions of the Administration– regulatory, service and developmental. To countries such as ours, the development oriented sector is the most important (but probably given the least attention). Since Independence Seventy one (71) years ago, the number of Ministers (including Deputy, Associate, Assistant, Project and Overseeing), has increased from eleven to near/over one hundred. This flies in the face of the promise to restrict the number to thirty as stipulated in the nineteenth (19) Amendment. We see the novel phenomenon of MP’s demanding positions as Minister. This looks like Blackmail. There is the disgraceful spectacle of using the device of a “National Government” to increase Portfolios! This from the promise of a ”Scientific” Cabinet ! One fails to see the “Science” in Linking Highways with Higher Education, Finance with Media and Foreign Affairs with Lotteries. It is clear that the size of Cabinet is dictated entirely by political expediency.
But to return to the case of Ms Charles – where the Cabinet action to reverse the original decision to replace her with a retiree, opens some new issues. Progress requires that lessons are to be learnt from mistakes or disasters. The fact that Trade Union actions (in this case a “Go slow”), has prompted a retraction. This has dangerous implications – that pressure can induce a change by authorities. This may encourage other sectors too to resort to ransom as a substitute for discussion and compromise. Perhaps the GMOA has already shown this. It is apparent that the action to effect a transfer of this officer was unwise. If, as the Trade Union claims, was because this officer did not accommodate an illegal request from a politician, to release some containers suspected to contain contraband. If this be true, the political authority that has required this departure from process, be publicly revealed and duly punished. It is said that this officer (perhaps the first female to occupy the post of Director-General of Customs), has performed her duties with due diligence, independence and efficiency. Is this correct? Why has deferment of her transfer been for three months only? This apparent departure from normal practice also demands an answer. If her suspicions regarding these detained containers are confirmed, she should be fully vindicated and the “reversed probation period” should also be revoked. This is one more case where political interference, may result in even a charge of complicity in crime, has proven to be toxic.
I have earlier suggested that a Trust Fund be set up, with voluntary contributions from corporates and individuals, to at least restore any financial loss, suffered by Public Servants. For cases where it can be proven to be victimization, when powerful forces are offended by proper and legally correct decisions. I believe that there would be generous contributions towards such a Fund, provided its organization and proper operation are ensured.