By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, June 21: The proposed 21 st. Constitutional Amendment (21A), which is meant to reduce the powers of the Executive President and enhance those of parliament, will be of no use if parliament continues to be lackadaisical in making use of the powers that it already has, or if the parliamentary committees have built-in weaknesses.
One of the significant ideas mooted by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is the need to strengthen parliament vis-à-vis the Executive Presidency in matters of public finance to enable it to exercise its constitutional prerogative to control public finance.
In his speech in parliament on May 29, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe highlighted the flaws in parliament’s functioning. He said: “The functioning of parliament has been paralyzed due to the weakening of parliamentary powers by the 20th Amendment. The Executive has been given more powers. The main allegation today is that parliament has not acted to prevent the economic crisis. There is an allegation that even though the ruling party had a majority in parliament they neglected the work of parliament. Everything was systematically controlled by the Cabinet Ministers.”
Lessons from the State Council
Harking back to Colonial Ceylon, Wickremesinghe said: “We do not always have to look at what happened in the past, but there are examples we can follow. Before the independence of Sri Lanka, there was a State Council from 1931 to 1947. That State Council functioned following the committee system. Each subject was divided into seven committees. The Chairmen of the Committees became Ministers. The seven Ministers had formed a cabinet. In addition, there were three officials appointed by the Governor. There was also an Accounts Committee to control public money.”
“We need to change the structure of parliament and create a new system by combining the existing system of parliament or the Westminster system and the system of State Councils. Parliament can participate in governing the country. First of all, the existing laws need to be strengthened in order to give those powers to parliament in the exercise of monetary powers. At present there are three Committees on government finance. The three Committees are the Public Finance Committee, the Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises. The Leader of the House, Dinesh Gunawardena, has made several proposals to strengthen the powers of these three Committees. We are working to establish two new Committees on Monetary Affairs. We will appoint a Legal and Methodological Committee to look into the matter.”
“Under our Standing Order 111 we can appoint Oversight Committees. No Oversight Committees have been appointed before. Therefore, we propose to appoint ten Oversight Committees. They will report to parliament on policies. Parliament should act on that. It should also be noted that the chairpersons of these five Finance Committees and the Ten Supervisory Committees are appointed by backbenchers. They are not appointed by Ministers. Therefore, we have the opportunity to work out a methodology that is independent of the Cabinet of Ministers and works with both the Minister and the Parliament.”
Wickremesinghe went on to suggest that subject experts, the youth, including the agitating youth of the ‘Gota Go Gama’ movement, should also be included in the 15 planned committees. He then roped in the former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to suggest ways of improving the committee system.
Pros and Cons of State Council’s Committee System
Under the Donoughmore Constitution (1931-47), every member of the State Council had opportunities to participate in decision-making through the committee system. This system gave the country’s emerging political elite opportunities to develop legislative and decision-making skills. It helped prevent political and communal marginalization and destructive antagonisms because every member had a role in decision-making.
However, the State Council’s committee system had its flaws. Firstly, the purse strings were held by State officials who were also members of the committees. It is these officials who had the final say. Asanga Welikala of the Centre for Policy Alternatives says that the system discouraged opposition and therefore was out of tune with competitive party politics necessary for political change.
In a 2002 paper he says: “ In the context of the clientalist social matrix upon which our political institutions are built, the system potentially creates an opposition lured by executive patronage into docile irrelevance, and the benefit of seemingly consensual government would only belie the de-legitimation of a political opposition. Needless to say, this would seriously enfeeble the institutional channels for the expression of democratic opposition.”
“The better approach is to resuscitate the role and relevance of parliament in such a way as to make it a genuine forum of redressing grievances and as a legitimate institution of deliberative democracy.”
Strengthening Existing Committees
The present committees in parliament must be strengthened to be a countervailing force against the Executive, Welikala and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe say. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A.Sumanthiran says that it is generally accepted that Chairpersons of the existing committees should be drawn from the opposition. But this dictum is not strictly followed. When Prof.Tissa Vitarana became chairman of the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), he was a government MP. And Prof.Charitha Herath, chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), is a ruling party MP. Sumanthiran further said that the 10 sanctioned Oversight Committees must be formed.
Asanga Welikala proposes that committee hearings should be open to the public and the media. The committees should be given research facilities so that members participate with knowledge of the subject under discussion. The findings of the committees should be taken by the Executive seriously.
The Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) reviews audit reports on ministries and departments but these functions are hampered by “delays in the submission of audit reports, infrequent meetings, narrow focus on excess expenditure and lack of follow up actions by the relevant ministries,” Welikala points out. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and MP Sumanthiran are working on a separate budget for the committees.
The Public Corporations are financially autonomous but they do come under Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Auditor General. It is suggested that they should abide by the private sector Sri Lanka Accounting Standards. According to Welikala, government companies incorporated under the Companies Act do not come under COPE review.
He suggests that the Auditor General should be made independent of the Executive and his office funded by a parliamentary vote. External consultants could be used to review the work of the Auditor General’s department.
Welikala further says that the parliamentary committees must be given excellent library facilities of the kind provided by the National Diet Library in Japan. That Diet library has a research bureau to gather and analyze data useful to MPs. It also helps draft bills.
The researcher points that parliament is not using the committees often enough. Instead of considering bills clause by clause in the Committee of the Whole House, these clause by clause considerations could be given to the Standing Committees. Outside experts or knowledgeable members of civil society should be called in to contribute to the proceedings of the Oversight Committees without, of course, the right to vote. Experience and talent must be made criteria for membership of parliamentary committees.
There should also be a committee on Subordinate Legislation to watch over subordinate rules and regulations so as to reduce the number of writ application before the courts, Welikala suggests. And to ensure that members of Oversight Committees act impartially, Ministers should not be chairman or even members of these committees.