By Lacille de Silva –
Our constitution is a written instrument of the state. It embodies the fundamental principles and laws that determine the powers and duties of the government. It guarantees specific rights, privileges of the citizens. It lays down the role of the Executive President, the executive government and the composition of the legislature. It also defines how the Provincial Councils share power and the functions of the judiciary including the nine independent commissions.
The fundamental characteristic of a Constitutional government is the rule of law. The Constitution is considered to be the supreme law of the land. It outlines the make-up of government and spells out the powers, authority and the duties of government. It also spells out the distribution of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
JR Jayewardene who is the architect of the present Constitution had said that “I can do anything except make man a woman or a woman a man”. After four decades, having promulgated the 2nd Republican Constitution, the Constitution is simply a bundle of papers of little value for the politicians in our country. As electors, we only have to elect Presidents, Parliament, Provincial Councils and local government bodies at an exorbitant cost. The Constitutional provisions are more honoured in the breach than the observance
Ours is the oldest democracy in Asia having achieved universal franchise in 1931. We became one of the first countries to hold elections in Asia to run a constitutional government. A Cabinet of Ministers, made up of members of the Parliament, which is answerable to the Parliament, had also been established under the Donoughmore Constitution.
The Cabinet is an important element of the government. It is usually made up of the senior members of the ruling party. It is the highest decision making body that approves policies with collective responsibility. After decisions are accordingly approved by the Cabinet, every single member is required to stand by the decisions without any reservation.
Ministers are required to achieve coherent long term policies, plans and procedures. The Cabinet is chaired by the President. Constitutionally, the Cabinet Cannot exceed thirty Ministers at present. Their powers derive from Parliament through the Constitution and other laws. All such powers are subject to limits and constraints. Abuse of such powers could be challenged in courts. Ministers are allowed to spend public money only for the purpose authorized by Parliament.
The Westminster system requires that the Ministers are chosen only if they have the capacity, ability, expertise, knowledge including the skills to give directions to run the government machinery.
Ministers are also expected to carry out their duties in a way that they uphold the highest standards of propriety, while ensuring that no conflict of interest would arise between their official functions and their private interests. They are also required to abide by all laws and have a duty to be accountable and answerable to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions taken in their Ministries and all departments and other institutions coming under them.
It is also necessary to ensure ‘individual responsibility’, which implies that each minister is individually responsible and answerable for lapses, departures from policies and procedures in all the institutions under the purview of the relevant minister. In New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark under similar circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic resigned from his portfolio.
The Ministers are expected to accept responsibility for any failure in administration. Ministerial responsibility specifies, under the constitutional doctrine of responsible government, that they are totally answerable to the Parliament. It must be emphasized that there are both legal and conventional obligations attached to the performance of Ministers. It is also the practice to give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament. Making a deliberate untruth is considered a contempt of Parliament. Ministers who deliberately mislead Parliament are expected to resign from their Cabinet portfolio.
If in case, a minister does not agree to abide by collective decisions, it is a tradition that the relevant minister tenders resignation from the Cabinet. All Ministers are therefore required to carry out their duties based on the guiding principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality with a long term vision for the betterment of the citizens.
In Sri Lanka, when the Ministers who had acted contrary to the public trust had subsequently been given appointments again without being dealt with by the law. Ministers in the UK are not allowed to accept any gifts or hospitality which could compromise their judgement or which could place them under an improper obligation. There are also specific guidelines issued that they should not use government resources too for political purposes in their political campaigns.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, UK, in a letter addressed to his Cabinet colleagues having enclosed a MINISTERIAL CODE had stated – “We will make our country the greatest place to invest or set up business, the greatest place to send your kids to school, and greatest place in the world to live and bring up a family. To fulfil this mission… we must uphold the highest standards of propriety .. Time has come to act, to take decisions, and to give strong leadership to change this country for the better”.
In Sri Lanka, our politicians think lying and dishonesty works. It is a human tragedy that they have lied for decades to gain power. It is integrity which is the most valuable and respected quality of leadership. We need honest hardworking leaders in our Cabinet. Because it is a global phenomena that a Cabinet of Ministers is essentially a small one in size. We need Cabinet Ministers who can produce more leaders. Such leaders should help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better. Such a Cabinet could enable better policy outcomes and efficient and effective decision making. It is the ‘cockpit of the nation’. And we need that fixed very well.
In Sri Lankan context, these considerations have been disregarded. All we need is a change of direction. We need a serious change in our thought process. That is the required paradigm shift at this juncture. Ministers are expected to uphold political impartiality and neutrality and allow public servants to act in the best interest of the citizens in accordance with the Constitution and other laws.
Nevertheless, our political leaders have always catered to the demands of self-centred politicians. They hold onto power and leadership greedily while enjoying the privileges and rewards of a leadership role without meaningful involvement with their juniors. They are only keen to make the best use of the organization without putting value in. As such, they practice a leadership style where the leader allows the group members to take decisions. Researchers have proved that this leadership style leads to the lowest productivity among such group members.
We have similar political leaders in our country in abundance. They do not follow the norms practiced globally in the best interest of the citizens. After being elected, they totally forget that they had been elected based on party manifestos they had presented. They do not take the trouble to run a legitimate government. The role of junior party members is also such that they do not support their elected leader to implement the manifesto presented to people.
Such political party leaders do not insist that the government Ministers must attend Parliament particularly at the question time to answer questions without fail. It is also vital to keep the Parliament always informed of any important decisions they have taken in the Government. Constitutionally, Government is required to seek Parliamentary approval for all executive actions.
The Government is answerable to the Parliament and through it to the electors. In this lies the distinctiveness of the Westminster model – the interrelation of the Executive Government and the Parliament. It is the essence of what in Westminster terms is called ‘parliamentary government’.
It is noteworthy, that the Civil Service established by the colonial rulers were able to perform their duties satisfactorily. The best proof for the purpose is Messrs Bradman Weerakoon, M.D.D Peries had served as Secretaries to different Prime Ministers. They were competent to meet the heavy demands of their political leaders.
There had been several others who had served as Permanent Secretaries under different Governments. They too had won the confidence of the Ministers in the past though the duties of the then Civil servants have been immensely numerous. They too had to assist various Ministers in different governments to perform their parliamentary duties.
They assist in preparation of necessary legislation. They also assist the relevant Ministers during its passage through Parliament. They produce briefs, drafts rules, regulations to strengthen accountability and constitutionality to run legitimate governance. All these need a thorough knowledge of the subject matter and practical judgement.
Top public Servants in the past were afforded with the opportunity to rise up and develop the necessary skills as they go up the ladder. They were therefore equipped to handle political, economic, social, scientific and technical problems with competence at the time. They were fully well aware of the needs, aspirations and even in regard to the developments overseas. They were able to keep up with the rapid growth of new knowledge and had acquired the necessary skills etc to apply them in their day to day work.
May I say in short the public service was not a place for the amatteur. It had been staffed by men and women who were truly professional. What went wrong? Since the promulgation of the 1978 Constitution, appointments of Secretaries to Ministries have been assigned to the President under Article 52. The appointments, transfers, disciplinary control of other top public officers have been entrusted to the Cabinet of Ministers under Article 55. The whole public service has therefore become totally politicised.
Being professional means two fundamental attributes, which in my view are extremely important in varying combinations to be a good public servant. One is being suitably skilled to perform his/her job, which usually is acquired with sustained experience and good training. The other is the possession of the necessary knowledge and the familiarity and the scrupulousness with the particular subject.
The work of government demands these qualities from the elected representatives and also from all types of appointed employees at all levels and in every public institution in the entire Island. Sadly, this kind of professionalism is presently not found in the public service in most places at different levels.
However, it must be placed on record that in certain sectors such as medical, academic and other fields we have plenty of them, who have acquired specific qualifications and skills in the relevant fields. It is unfortunate that such valuable professionals too due to political instability, poor quality of life, lack of economic and other benefits leave Sri Lanka in search of greener pastures, where they have greater opportunities.
Owing to political appointments, there are obstacles in all areas where they cannot reach the top without political support which should be removed. Steps should be taken to empower men and women with wide experience, ability and necessary qualifications in running the government machinery to become the fully professional advisers of Ministers and other elected officials.
Recruitment to the Public Service should be totally independent. Reports published the world over had condemned nepotism, the incompetence and other similar defects in the Public Service. We have experienced excessive politicization of the public service.
We now understand that the role of public service and the goals of a government have changed. Government is now compelled to take on vast new responsibilities. It is expected to achieve such general economic aims such as creation of employment opportunities, a satisfactory rate of growth, stable food prices including a healthy balance of payments. If it is a government genuinely concerned about fullest possible development of human potential, all that involves a massive increase in public expenditure.
We do not handle public expenditure as desired. Extravagant and unnecessary expenditure have not been avoided. Public money has been wastefully invested for corrupt purposes other than public good. All successive governments have failed to keep its budget well-balanced. There had been ever-recurring deficits in the budgets for decades and decades. Shouldn’t we put a stop to all that?