Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

Strengthening institutions and organizational capacity 4 - The dominant function of MPs and Ministers

( Created date: 11-Jun-2013 )

I have looked thus far at the Sri Lankan Parliament, and its failure to fulfil properly the essential duties of a Legislature. These are the making of Laws, and financial oversight, through both the Budget and control of financial expenditure. 
Most Members of Parliament do not however understand that these are their main responsibilities. Rather they believe that their principal function is representational, ie that they are in Parliament to represent the interests of those who voted for them. 
This is true, but the problem is that they do not understand their collective responsibilities as Parliamentarians, to make sure that laws are made, and public funds are expended, in the interests of the people. Rather, they think only of their individual responsibility, which is connected with the need to continue to be Parliamentarians. 
This explains the fact that most interventions in Parliament relate to the individual needs of constituents. There are exceptions in the questions asked by opposition Members, which are intended sometimes to draw attention to general problems, but even they often lapse into personal considerations. The fact that hardly any government Members ask questions is indicative of the general view that policy – and its practice on a wider scale – is not their business. 
One cannot blame them however, given the lackadaisical approach to answering such questions on the part of Ministers. The Speaker has tried to remedy this, but has not succeeded. Similarly, the failure of government Members, except for a handful, to move Adjournment Motions is also understandable, since hardly anyone waits to hear what is said on such occasions. 
Indeed, it is rarely that the House has more than a handful of Members when speeches are made, as was apparent during the discussion on the plethora of Bills passed in early April. Members did flock in for the vote, given that the JVP asked for a division (the UNP decided that the matter was not of great concern to them, and were absent), but the discussion did not seem of concern. Again, this is understandable, given the basically technical nature of most of the Bills, but it was a pity that some of the issues of principle that the Opposition raised were not heard or responded to forcefully. The role of casinos and the process of resettlement for instance are both issues that should concern Parliament as a whole, but since they are not of immediate concern to individual electorates, they are thought to merit little attention.
The real business of Parliamentarians then, as exemplified in the issues raised in Consultative Committees, when they meet, is the particular problems of electorates. But while these should not be ignored – and as a National List MP without such concerns I need to emphasize that I recognize their importance for my colleagues, as well as the voters they represent – Parliament is not the forum in which they should be raised. Rather, the Ministries that need to resolve such problems should allocate time for Members to raise concerns with particular officials, without all Members and all officials having to get involved in the question of whether a particular Principal should be transferred or a particular family be given Disaster Relief. 
Unfortunately this concern with particular problems also now extends to the Executive. The increasing pressure from Members of Parliament to become Ministers springs primarily from the need to wield sufficient influence to do more for particular electorates. The most obvious example of this is the decision of Mangala Samaraweera, when asked to choose one of the two Ministries he presided over in 2006, to select Ports and Aviation rather than the Foreign Ministry in which he had performed impressively, as the European Union proscription of the LTTE evinced. However he wanted a portfolio in which he could as it were provide jobs for his boys. 
This is common practice. I remember being astonished, nearly two decades ago, to find that all the security staff at the South Eastern University came from Galle, but naturally Richard Pathirana as Minister of Education had used his position to give jobs to his constituents. The flip side of this, I was told, in defence as it were by the security guards at Oluvil, was that Galle Harbour was manned by people from Amparai, since Mr Ashraff was then the Minister of Ports.    
The sheer lunacy of such a system is difficult to grasp however for those caught up in it. And the situation is made worse for those now involved in electoral politics because of the enormous size of the constituencies they represent. Given the need to win preferences from the voters of an entire District, it is no wonder that the energies of both Ministers and Members are devoted to the welfare of their constituents – and no wonder that all Members seek executive office, since the influence they otherwise command is insufficient to ensure continuing popularity. Given that now the playing field is so unbalanced as it were between Ministers and ordinary Members on the government side, it is obvious that the President will be under immense pressure to create even more portfolios – and this explains the absurdity, unique to Sri Lanka, that Ministers who have not performed well are not retired, but simply shifted to another portfolio, even one that has no actual functions. 
This is not a feature of this government alone. I remember being astonished, looking through the 2003 budget estimates, to find that Ranil Wickremesinghe, supposedly a paragon of financial responsibility, had several Ministries with no operational budgets. The funds of the people were spent to maintain establishments, with the attached perks, simply to allow restive Members to have Ministerial status. 
Sadly, Jayewardene in introducing his Executive Presidency, ignored the principle he had enunciated in his manifesto, and which obtains elsewhere in the world for Executive Presidents, of having Ministers from outside Parliament. That alone will allow Ministers, and Members, to fulfil their real responsibilities. 


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