Power to the people | Daily News

Power to the people

I was intrigued recently to see two individuals with influence talking about changes to the committee system in Parliament. I had mentioned the need for this in my first article in this series, on constitutional reform, but I had not specified that some essential changes within Parliament could be achieved through amendments to Standing Orders without waiting for a constitutional amendment.

Dinesh Gunawardena had realized this and in two statements he issued towards the end of May he said that ‘an Amendment to the Standing Orders of Parliament would be tabled soon to increase the powers of the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and others.’ He mentioned how their reports often led to nothing, and he wanted to give the committees more teeth.

This was in line with changes proposed by the committee on Standing Orders in 2015 but, before the changes could be finalized and made, Parliament was dissolved. The next committee ignored these attempts and left the committees as powerless as before. The forceful action of COPE with regard to the Bond scam suggested that the committees were in fact powerful, but as became clear in the aftermath it was only because a special Presidential Commission was appointed that there was a resignation, albeit just the one.

Though more than two weeks have passed since the first announcement by Dinesh, presumably in his capacity as Leader of the House, nothing further has been done. Meanwhile the Prime Minister too has got into the act, though his proposals are vague, and give no indication of how he proposes to fulfil what he suggests is an ideal state.

This involves essentially two factors, one to strengthen the powers of the Finance Committees and create two more ‘on Monetary Affairs’. The second is ‘to appoint four youth representatives to each of these 15 committees’, the other ten committees he refers to being what are termed oversight committees.

How he proposes to do this is not clear. As usual there is some muddle in his thinking, because he claims that he is moving towards creating ‘a new system by combining the existing system of Parliament or the Westminster system and the system of State Councils. In those cases Parliament can participate in governing the country.’

Leaving aside the appalling grammar, which is doubtless the responsibility of the reporter, making one wonder what ‘those cases’ are, what is proposed is nothing like either of the systems mentioned, The State Council Committees of the Donoughmore system had executive powers and all members could participate in governance under the Minister who was elected as the Chairman. The Westminster Committees have an oversight and policy making function, which has been basically ignored in Sri Lanka for decades. In England, and in India which was much better about preserving the consultative status of committees under the Westminster system, Ministers listen to proposals and answer questions about general matters, not simply responding to matters relating to the individual constituencies of Parliamentarians.

Instead of strengthening these committees, in 2018, three years after Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto pledged changes, oversight committees were in addition set up, on the strength of a paper prepared by someone who did not understand Parliament at all and thought legislation the preserve of officials and the Cabinet. The oversight committees functioned for well over a year, but achieved nothing because, as one of the chairs I upbraided for having done nothing, Thusitha Wijemanne, said mournfully, the Cabinet ignored all their suggestions.

The Prime Minister claims ‘Under our Standing Order 111 we can appoint oversight committees. No oversight committees have been appointed before.’ This is not true, though perhaps because they were deemed useless no one, least of all the Prime Minister in the year or so he was in Parliament before taking on the position, bothered to set them up under this Parliament. But how putting four young people amongst Parliamentarians will ensure positive change is not clear.

Nor is it clear how the four young people will be chosen. One is reminded of how the Prime Minister, in an earlier incarnation, increased youth representation in Parliament by nominating Dinesh Dodangoda for a National List vacancy. Now he suggests that, with the Youth Parliament nominating one person, those who protest can nominate three. Since never before have outsiders been on Parliamentary committees, one wonders what the constitutional position is.

Interestingly, the idea of backbencher power is totally vitiated by a provision in the Standing Order brought in 2018, namely that ‘The Leader of any political party or independent group represented in Parliament may in writing request the Committee of Selection to remove any such Member nominated under paragraph (21) above from such Committee. The Committee of Selection shall on receipt of such a request discharge any such Member from such Committee and inform Parliament.’

This seems typical of the whitewashing that has gone on, in cutting down anyone who might stand up against authority.

The need for genuine reform should not be sidetracked by platitudes. However the clear if limited suggestions made by Dinesh Gunawardena should be taken forward swiftly, to herald a sea change in the current political culture of this country. What is needed is statutory control of the executive, and transparency, and assuming he has studied what was proposed in 2015, the way of moving forward is clear and simple.

But I do hope too that he will look at the first article in this series, in which I suggested a mechanism of including outsiders in Parliamentary committees. If the Prime Minister is serious about involving ‘people with expertise in specific fields’ in an advisory and restraining capacity which I trust is what he meant by the vague ‘in this work’ election by Parliament as a whole may be acceptable constitutionally, with a large enough number to ensure that varied interests are represented, as they will be if the Single Transferable Vote system is used.

I wrote then about a High Posts Committee consisting of

(i) the Speaker of the House who shall be Chairman of the Committee

(ii) five members of Parliament who do not hold office, elected by the House on the Single Transferable vote system at its first session following a General Election

(iii) five individuals not in Parliament elected by the House on the Single Transferable vote system.

Perhaps this is how the Finance Oversight Committees of Parliament should be constituted, or if this is thought too radical, there could be at least five individuals from outside Parliament elected to these as well as the consultative committees.

That will be a start, while different interests argue about constitutional changes. Changes to Standing Orders are easier to get through, and will I hope be made before this month is over.

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