Focus/Spotlight

More MPs willing to declare assets

By Tharumalee Silva

More parliamentarians expressed interest to declare their assets to the public while others are in discussions with their respective political parties on the matter.

With the growing heat of elections, much controversy surrounds the topic of asset declarations by members of Parliament.

Eight MPs out of the 225 in the Parliament of Sri Lanka have publicly declared their assets, and Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) told The Sunday Morning that seven other Members of Parliament had reached out to them and shown interest in declaring their assets to the public.

MPs Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tharaka Balasuriya, M.A. Sumanthiran, Vidura Wickramanayake, Ranjan Ramanayake, Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana, and State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne have declared their assets so far.

TISL Right to Information Manager Sankhitha Gunaratne stated that the declaration of assets by these parliamentarians set an exemplary precedent across party lines for all members of Parliament to publicly declare their assets.

She further said that four other MPs had willingly come forth to publicly declare their assets. However, they had only verbally confirmed.

“We do not want to give them any publicity until they actually come forward and declare their assets, but we are hopeful that they will,” she said.

Publishing asset declarations has been a card played by politicians from all over the world to gain the trust of the public.

Parliamentary privilege

A report published by the World Bank notes: “Limitations on the privacy of public officials by requiring them to disclose their income, assets, and liabilities serves the public interest. Academic studies have shown that public access to declared information is associated with lower levels of perceived corruption.”

Speaking to The Sunday Morning on a previous occasion, MP Tharaka Balasuriya stated that declaring assets is an ethical responsibility. The MP also stated that members of Parliament and public officials should declare their assets in a public domain as this would reduce accusations brought forward by various parties as well.

“In most instances, no such bribery exists. Individual ideologies change with time and ministers and parliamentarians switch parties because of this,” he said.

He stated that MPs are afforded parliamentary privilege, where it is not mandatory for them to declare their assets.

However, nations such as Ukraine have introduced a new constitutional reform, the “Corruption Prevention Law”, which makes it mandatory for public officials to disclose their assets publicly.

These laws were adapted to reduce corruption among public officials. It was noted by the World Bank that 70% of countries in Europe and Central Asia and 97% of Organisations for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted similar laws pertaining to anti-corruption.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara stated that the party had not reached a collective decision as of yet to publicly declare their assets.

The OECD recently published a case study which deals with the importance of disclosing assets as information accessible to the public.

The OECD stated that it was important “to increase transparency and the trust of citizens in public administration by disclosing information about assets of politicians and civil servants that shows they have nothing to hide; to help heads of public institutions prevent conflicts of interest among their employees and to resolve such situations when they arise, in order to promote integrity within their institutions; and to monitor wealth variations of individual politicians and civil servants, in order to dissuade them from misconduct and protect them from false accusations, and to help clarify the full scope of illicit enrichment or other illegal activity by providing additional evidence”.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa held discussions regarding the matter, but had not yet reached a final decision.

“We handed over our declarations to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, but are still discussing as to whether we should publicly declare our assets,” he said.

Boosts public confidence

Whether asset declarations will boost confidence and trust levels of the general public has been questioned by many authorities.

Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader MP Udaya Gammanpila stated that asset declarations do not play a role in increasing the confidence the general public has in members of Parliament. Being the first Member of Parliament to publicly declare his assets back in 2009, Gammanpila stated that it is a document which includes limited information, and does not cover various other aspects of the individual’s life. Thus, he stated that in his experience, declaring assets cannot be seen as increasing public confidence.

“Members of Parliament should publicly declare their assets so they will be rid of all baseless accusations of bribery and corruption brought forward by other parties. Having the job of a politician means you’re a goldfish in a glass bowl. If you cannot handle it, you cannot be a politician,” said Gammanpila.

Prime Minister’s asset declaration

Much controversy surrounded the Prime Minister’s asset declaration in May, when the Presidential Secretariat refused to make public the Prime Minister’s asset declaration even after instruction by the Right to Information (RTI) Commission.

The matter is to be taken up in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and according to the RTI Manager at TISL, the RTI Commission received a notice returnable for 19 July.

As per the Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2006: “A request under this Act for access to information shall be refused, where – (a) the information relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information or the person concerned has consented in writing to such disclosure.

“(b) Disclosure of such information – i. would undermine the defence of the State or its territorial integrity or national security; ii. would be or is likely to be seriously prejudicial to Sri Lanka’s relations with any State, or in relation to international agreements or obligations under international law, where such information was given by or obtained in confidence.”

The Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law No.1 of 1975 states:

2. (l) The provisions of this law shall apply to every person belonging to any one of the following classes or descriptions of persons;
(a) Members of Parliament;
(b) Judges and public officers appointed by the President, public officers appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers, judicial officers, and scheduled public officers appointed by the Judicial Service Commission, and staff officers in ministries and government departments