By DNR Samaranayaka –
A request had been made by the Sunday Times, on 28th March, 2021, from Mr. Tikiri Jayatilleke, the Assistant Secretary-General and Information Officer of the Parliament. In this request, the Sunday Times sought the information on educational qualifications of members of parliament. However, this request had been turned down by Mr. Jayatilleke on the grounds that it amounts to the invasion of privacy of the MPs. He has used the section 5 of the RTI act that enforces certain conditions under which the information should not be made public. These four conditions can be summarized as:
1. the disclosure has no relationship to any public activity, 2. the disclosure is likely to lead to unwanted invasion of privacy of the individual, 3. there is no large public interest to learn about MPs qualifications and 4. The approval of the disclosure is subject to the wish of the MP.
These are very stringent rules that cannot be easily explained to the satisfaction of the rule; and it is very clear that they are meant to prevent the release of the information on educational qualifications of MPs. Consider the absurdity of the last rule. It requires the approval of the MP to release his or her educational qualifications. If the law requires the disclosure of academic qualifications to be approved by the person concerned, it will never be possible to get this information if the person does not have any qualifications that he can disclose. Such a person can always refuse to give the information and it cannot be forcefully obtained either. The RTI, however, recognizes the right of the people to know the information about other people as said in the act: Subject to exceptions such as state secrets, people should have the right to demand information from state institutions. Releasing private information and information related to accomplishments being done using the public tax funds is a responsibility of public officials. It is a right of the people to receive such information without any delay and with complete accuracy”.
Perhaps the most important condition regarding the release of the information is in section 6 of the act. The Assistant Secretary-General appears to have ignored this section in making the decision to reject the request of the Sunday Times. This section, however, introduces a more difficult prerequisite to comply with. It says: Notwithstanding the provision of section 5 (1), a request for information shall not be refused where the “public interest” in disclosing the information outweighs the harm that would result from the disclosure. This condition is more difficult than satisfying the four conditions, reported above, because of the term “public interest” remains undefined in the RTI act. The act says, the “term public interest will be interpreted by the RTI Commission in due time”. Unfortunately, even after more than five years, this term has not been defined and published.
I searched the internet to find a definition or the meaning of ‘public interest’, and I went through many articles that attracted the attention on this topic. Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of it among the articles I read. I am quoting the following from the Western Australia Royal Commission report: The public interest is a term for which there is no single precise definition. The answer to the question “What is the Public interest depends almost entirely on the circumstances in which the question arises. The public interest has been variously described as the sum of special interests, the shared values of the community, the broad shared interest of the society etc. It is not difficult to find multitude of definitions about the public interest since the time of Aristotle”.
The rule of the section 6 of the act, on the other hand, appears to provide an opportunity to Sunday Times to obtain the information on educational qualifications of MPs from the RTI on the basis that the paper represents the public interest. The information requested by the Sunday Times is not for the personal use of the paper. It is quite clear that the information was intended for the general public. If this information was requested by someone for his or her personal use, the rejection by the Assistant Secretary would have been justified. The section six clearly emphasises that the information should be released if the public interest is greater than the harm it causes to the individual. Turning down the request of the Sunday Times is a violation of the rights of the people. It has sought this information since it is becoming clear that people in the country are interested in knowing the educational qualifications of MPs. Educational qualifications are simply a public good. As such, its release to the public cannot be denied.
Is there any harm in releasing this information?
One of the four reasons that were used in prohibiting the release of the information is that “the disclosure is likely to lead to unwanted invasion of privacy of the individual”. Releasing the information on educational qualifications of MPs is not going to harm the MPs in any manner. A parliamentarian can continue to be an MP irrespective of the level of education; and his or her term ends only with the dissolution of the parliament. As such an MP will not face any threat to his or her position in parliament by RTI releasing the educational qualifications on MPs.
Educational qualifications are the most commonly used yard sticks in measuring the knowledge of a person; it is often used to determine the ability of the person to undertake the responsibility that he or she is entrusted with. According to the Assistant Secretary, educational qualifications are personal information and as such they cannot be released. There may be some truth in what he says; but it becomes public information when a person is involved in public duty. If a person applies for a job, for example, the applicant needs to prove that he or she possesses the qualifications relevant to the position. To prove his or her claim, a certificate issued by a relevant authority must be forwarded along with the application. If fails to do so, that person will be eliminated from consideration for the position. Even to enter a university to follow a degree program, the applicants will have to sit for a competitive exam and its results will determine whether the applicant has succeeded in getting a place or not.
I saw an advertisement in the papers recently calling for applications for Village Councillors (Grama Niladhari) in Sri Lanka for those with three average passes at S.S.C exam. It is a government position with a salary of Rs 47,000 per month. Isn’t this a good example to support that educational qualifications are not only private information, but they become public when they are revealed when seeking a job. That is the rule of the government. This process helps to understand that all selected candidates have the required qualifications. Since the MPs do not have to have any education to enter the parliament, there can be so many MPs without any educational qualifications. Some may not even eligible to hold a Grama Niladhari position.
Educational qualifications of MPs in other countries
Educational qualifications of politicians in most other countries are known to the public as they are published on the internet. The British Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson, for example, has earned a B.A in economics from Wharton School of Finance and Commerce in 1968. In the UK parliament, about 81% are holders of at least a bachelor’s degree. Mr. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, has a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) degree from the University of Delhi and an M.A from Gujarat University. In Australia, out of 226 members in parliament, 86% have at least a Bachelor’s degree. The former President of The United States, Donald Trump, also holds a B.A. in Economics from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. A number of Sri Lankan politicians have also registered their educational qualifications on the internet; among them are Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is a graduate from the University of Ceylon, and also an advocate from the Law College, which he secured in 1972; and Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa is also a lawyer from the law college. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s information is on the internet. He has given the school he studied (Ananda College) and the Diyatalawa Army Training College, where he underwent military training, as his educational qualifications. Unfortunately, these are not the educational qualifications; they are the places where he studied and where he received his army training. It appears that he has nothing to declare as educational qualifications. This might explain the stupidity that he demonstrates very often when dealing with important development or administrative issues in the country.
Politicians and their power
It is presumed that parliamentarians in Sri Lanka are superior to ordinary people. This is evidenced by the fact that the law of the land deals with the politicians differently to the way that it deals with ordinary people. They have the power to sack government servants if they go against the politicians or if the government servants do not respect the politicians. They can always justify what they do. They are never wrong and are free to behave in any manner anywhere, including the parliament. They are never charged for any crime; and they can use the country’s natural resources as their private assets. They always justify their actions even though they are seen by the public as wrong; no one challenges their decisions. Everything about politicians are determined by the politicians themselves. They decide their salaries and other perks; they can import luxury vehicles without any consideration about the difficulties that common man face on day to day basis; they can travel overseas with a huge entourage costing millions to the country. Their educational qualifications or criminal records are never checked. Some politicians use their power to clear valuable natural forests and destroy large stretches of the forest cover in the process. It is believed these activities are carried out with the blessing of the leadership, and those involved in this illicit trade are protected by the higher-ups.
Politicians are rarely sent to jail. Even if they are charged with a crime and sent to jail, they can still attend the parliament. Such an opportunity is not given to any other person in the country. Even if he is a murderer, he can be brought to the parliament; sometimes such a person is pardoned by the president. There are so many politicians who entered the parliament with the support of the people, most of them are now extremely rich and owns various properties including palatial residences, vehicles and large bank accounts. Although Yahapalana regime promised to take action against the Rajapaksa regime, they also miserably failed. They too were involved in the same corrupt practices. The failure of the Yahapalana regime not only let off the crooks of the Rajapaksa clan, it also gave an opportunity for them to return by securing both the presidency and the government. Unfortunately, the majority is repenting their decision to invite them back. The leaders of the Yahapalana government are also responsible for the ongoing situation in the country.
Although the parliamentarians are elected by the people, most of them act like they are the masters. They can be seen only during an election time to beg for the vote. The majority succeeds due to the ignorance of the people. Although they promised to serve the people, the moment they were elected, their interest is about themselves and their ulterior motive is to make money both legally and illegally. In the past there was no interest in knowing the educational qualifications of MPs because the majority of them devoted their time and effort to serve the people. Apart from the salary they received as parliamentarians, there were no other perks offered to them, compared to the millions wasted on the MPs now entering parliament. I have travelled with late Mr. W. Dahanayake, a former prime minister, in the same bus sharing the same seat. This was after he retired as the prime minister. When I asked him why he is travelling by bus, he said that he did not have an official vehicle or a vehicle of his own. The politicians of today are totally different to the politicians of the yester year. They not only enjoy a lavish life style at the expense of the people, they also steel openly without any concern that they are stealing from the people.
In the past there were very few complaints against politicians engaged in corrupt practices. This started changing with the introduction of the liberalization policies under the late president JR Jayewardene in 1981. These policies were intended to relax the restrictive policies of the previous regime, to open the economy to attract investments, and to strengthen trading with other nations. However, it also opened opportunities for corruption by the members of his own government. This practice continued and it became quite visible under the Rajapaksa administration. Today it is like an uncontrollable cancer spreading throughout the country. When the political leaders are corrupt beyond the limit, there is no way that can be prevented from spreading throughout the economy. In the current parliament, it is not possible to find a single MP who is not involved in corruption.
The MPs today enjoy a lot of privileges at the expense of the tax payer. Currently, an MP receives an average salary of Rs 55,000 per month. In addition, there are various other payments and allowances that an MP is entitled to. These include an office allowance of Rs 100,000 per month, which is almost doubled the monthly salary of an MP. This allowance was introduced by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during Yahapalana government. The reason for this huge increase by the former PM was never explained; it’s a total misallocation of public funds which brings no benefit to the country. An MP is also entitled to a postage allowance of Rs 3,500 and a phone allowance of Rs 50,000 per year. All these add to about Rs 2 million per year. In addition, an MP is entitled to a duty free allowance to import a vehicle and this allowance can be not less than Rs 40 million. MPs who are from electorates outside the Western Province are also entitled to a rent free apartment. In addition, they are entitled to a pension as well. Normally, only a government servant is entitled to a pension after retirement; but MPs enjoy a pension after completing just five years as an MP. This is another privilege that parliamentarians enjoy. As they are receiving a pension, similar to government servants, they also have the responsibility in disclosing their educational qualifications.
Why should the parliamentarian’s education matter?
Although there is no specific duty attached to a member of parliament, an MP has a responsibility to assist the government to carry out its policies to improve the living standards of the people in the country. If the MP is a member of the governing party, he or she will have to be associated with the country’s development policies. When a government introduces a bill in parliament for approval, it needs to be supported by the MPs in the governing party. They are expected to contribute to the debate in support of the bill as well; MPs in the opposition are normally behave as critiques of the government and its policies. The parliament, or the legislator, is the place where the laws are formulated, debated, modified and approved on behalf of the people of the country. The participation of MPs in such debates is extremely important and they also take part in reviewing and amending the policies of the government. Unfortunately, only a few can contribute to such duties at present.
The selection of a candidate is the responsibility of the leader of the party. Since an election costs a lot of money, often running into several millions, the selection of candidates is influenced by the ability of the candidate to meet the costs of the election campaign and not the qualifications of the candidate. In addition, family connections and friends of the leadership of the party also play a key role in the selection process of candidates. Since the people will have to vote for someone that the party leadership decides means that this process does not bring qualified people into the parliament. Frequently, the leader prefers less educated or ordinary candidates since they are easy to keep them under their command. The choice of the leadership also depends on the loyalty to the leadership and not the capability of the candidate. The option that the voter has is either to select a candidate from the choice of the leadership or abstain from voting. Most of the members serve the leadership by supporting what the leadership wants. They are usually referred to as those raising their hands (Ath ossowannos) for anything that the leadership proposes. The parliament also has a group of parliamentarians appointed by the party, and it is intended to bring in the people who have done some service to the country. Since lately, this number is also filled mostly with either defeated candidates or friends of the party leaders.
The need of qualified people in the parliament
The quality of the MPs now entering the parliament appears to have drastically diminished during the last two decades. Although some members of parliament perform their duties well, the emerging situation is that more and more MPs currently entering the parliament cannot even secure a job in the private sector or in the public sector since they do not have suitable qualifications. Since MPs do not require any qualifications to enter the parliament, those with money, usually earned through illegal means, are frequently get elected as MPs. It is believed that more than half the MPs in parliament have senior level or better and the other half is even without the senior level either. In 2018, the parliament was arbitrarily dissolved by the then President, Maithripala Sirisena, and during that time the parliament became a place where the MPs behaved like hooligans. The MPs were using pepper spray inside the parliament and the Speaker became helpless as the MPs did not listen to him. This uncivilized behaviour of the representatives of the people is a shame for the people who elected them to parliament. Frequently, the MPs in the parliament do not allow the opposition members to speak and always object to what the speaker is saying. This behaviour applies to both the government and the opposition MPs. Simply speaking the respectability of the people to politicians that we had in the past is now completely lost and often the people treat them as thieves. This is the reason that we need to know the educational qualifications of the politicians. It is important to know whether there is a correlation between educational qualifications and the behaviour of politicians.
It is not possible to say that a person with higher education is always serve the country better as an MP than an MP with no such qualifications. What is important is the knowledge of learning and using it effectively. Some derive this through education while others develop through work experience or hard work. Even without a formal education, a person can have a good knowledge about various things which could be much more relevant to the development of the country. Bringing qualified and educated people will help to formulate better policies in all sectors and contribute to the development process. In most other professions educational qualifications are a formality in selecting a person for any positon. This is the reason that the productivity in the private sector is much higher than in the public sector. That is also the reason for the ability to offer higher benefits to employees in the private sector. Uplifting the educational standards of the parliament could significantly improve the respect for the MPs and the trust of the people. Both these have fallen sharply since the last decade.
A few days after the return of Mr Basil Rajapaksa, a petition was signed by 113 MPs in the house and delivered it to the President Rajapaksa. It requested Mr. Basil Rajapaksa to be appointed as a member of parliament and make him the minister of Finance. These people believe that Basil can do wonders. But they failed to realize that this thinking of making him the minister of Finance put them down very badly. If he can rescue the ailing economy, which is almost bankrupt, to the level of prosperity that Gota is pursing, then what is the purpose of these 113 parliamentarians? They have also failed like the president. Only a few think that Basil has a magic to turn around the country. Most others consider him as a corrupt politician known as Mr. 10 percent.
There are a number of professionals already in SLPP and they are not being considered by the president for positions in the cabinet. Instead Gota prefers those incompetent group of MPs and they are given key portfolios such as, Health, Agriculture, Transport, Tourism, trade, Irrigation etc. Although these ministers have held these positions for nearly one and half years, there has been no change in the progress under these ministers as well. In fact there is confusion everywhere. The fertilizer issue is an example. It is a good thing to promote the use of organic fertilizer in agriculture. However, it must be properly planned without rushing to introduce a new policy over a long term tradition of using chemical fertilizer. There has to be a transitional period to adjust it to the new environment. Despite massive rallies against the new policy, the President remains unconcerned. The rush for the president to change over to organic fertilizer appears to be his desire to claim that he is the first leader in the world who replaced chemical fertilize with organic fertilizer. Unfortunately, his ignorance in understanding the reality of the problem is leaving the farmers unable to cultivate their land. As a result, they will lose their income. Agriculture is their livelihood, it is now been destroyed by the ban of chemical fertilizer. They are now facing an uncertain future.
What needs to be done?
The entry of unqualified MPs into parliament lies in the selection process of the candidates. This situation will not change unless the minimum requirements are introduced to be an MP. The following are some ideas in this direction.
1. Every Member of Parliament must have completed at least the senior level education. The priority should be given to those with graduate qualifications in social sciences, management, agriculture etc. Those with senior level qualifications must have at least 10 years’ experience in community development.
2. A working knowledge in English must be established for all MPs in the parliament. The government must conduct these exams before any election. At least 50% of the marks is needed to be a candidate at the election. (The government is planning to introduce English from the first grade. It demonstrates the importance in English. It should apply to MPs as well.)
3. The salaries and other benefits of MPs must be comparable with the public sector salaries. They can receive few other allowances. A provident fund scheme similar to one in the private sector can be introduced to provide them with retirement benefits. The pension scheme must be dropped. Parliamentarians must be less than 65 years to contest for a parliament seat and the president or the prime minister’s positions can be held up to 70 years.
The MPs are a privileged group and they enjoy a lavish lifestyle. They occasionally attend the parliament. The other responsibilities are to attend funerals and weddings. They want luxury cars for these duties. It is time to change the system. The MPs who want to enter the parliament must follow certain rules, shown above.
*The writer is an economist, living in Brisbane, Australia.