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The 2020 Parliamentary review 

13 Dec 2021

The Parliamentary sessions for the year have ended; its achievements but few, its failures greater, its ignominies, both manifold and manifest. With the next session to commence early in the new year of 2022, it is perhaps timely to look at some relevant aspects of the Legislature’s and specifically its elected and national list public representatives’ performance during the course of this year (2021). The focus hence will be on aspects pertaining to Parliamentarians’ attendance, the legislators’ behaviour and conduct, and Parliamentary oversight of a financial nature and as a check and balance on the other pillars of democratic governance – the Executive and the Judiciary, and overall transparency and accountability in its functioning. With regard to attendance, the Parliament is one of the few work places, which while not making attendance mandatory, rewards it. A Member of Parliament is paid a sitting allowance of Rs. 2,500 per attendance at a Parliamentary meeting and the same if attending any Parliamentary committee meeting held on Parliamentary non-sitting days. This is not to mention an office allowance, drivers allowance (if no driver is provided by the Government that is), fuel allowance (based on the distance between the Parliament and the electoral District), telephone allowance (monthly for a landline and mobile), transport allowance for four personal office staff and free postage facilities. The reality, however, was laid bare recently when the incumbent Speaker of the Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena queried the conspicuous absence of the majority of the Government front benchers, including Ministers, during Parliamentary sessions, noting full House only being seen on the days that the President attends. In the same vein, a prominent Opposition party leader recently questioned the absence of Power Minister Gamini Lokuge, who had promised to present a controversial hush-hush agreement to the House, yet was not to be heard of or from when related questions were posed. The Finance Minister’s absence, more specifically, the extent of the absence during the crucial Budget debate period is unprecedented, as evidence of the lack of even the elementary aspects of omniscience on his part as the central framer of the document known as the Budget 2022.     On the matter of the exemplary behaviour and dignified conduct of Parliamentarians, the less said about their behaviour or conduct in the Parliament, some argue, the better. This year’s best loudmouth windbag award went to Government MP Thissa Kuttiarachchi, who followed in the footsteps of far more senior incumbent Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Several years ago, Nanayakkara famously swore at the then Prime Minister using an expletive, which another incumbent Minister proceeded to explain was also a classical Sinhala term for “fruit”. On 20 November, Kuttiarachchi made the following statements in Parliament, in Sinhalese, about Kavirathna as well as Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa’s wife: “On 19 November, Kavirathna shamelessly asked us whether we went to the market recently and how much brinjals, elephant-ear tree (habarala), and green leaves cost. She is asking us if we bought brinjals, habarala, and green leaves? Go and ask that from Sajith Premadasa’s wife. Why are you asking us that?,” stated Kuttiarachchi. The words and tone Kuttiarachchi used and the innuendo and subtext of the statements came in for heavy criticism, both from the parliamentary Opposition and beyond. However, Kuttiarachchi was only given a slap on the wrist when the Speaker belatedly condemned the statement following sustained pressure. This attitude of and approach by the Speaker (not only the incumbent but also his predecessors), has for quite some time now, come to be the standard of discipline enforced by the lord of the flies (the Speaker) whose subjects’ cognitive capacity, inverse to the requirements of the task at hand of legislating and policy making by way of asking questions, engaging in consultation, performing oversight, and making draft law and policy related submissions, seems to suffer the fate of the vestigial organs, at a time when sterner stuff is the desperate need of the hour. So much then for using Erskine May [the canonical text of Parliamentary procedure] and the Commonwealth [Latimer House] Principles on the Legislative Branch of Government and the Standing Orders for attempting the Sisyphean task of cleaning up the hallowed Chamber of the Augean stable that is supposed to be the Parliament. Finally, there is the infinitely vexatious question of Parliamentary oversight and the lack of transparency and accountability. The indecent haste with which the Government sought to bring about the safe passage of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill and the veil of secrecy surrounding the Government’s pact with a US-based energy company, are examples from among one too many including others that pertain to the opening of letters of credit and payments being made from such. In yet another unique departure from the Parliamentary norm, it is the same Opposition party leader who queried the subject of the Minister’s absence, who has since had to table the Government’s dodgy bilateral deal! Furthermore, Article 148 of the Constitution stipulates that the “Parliament shall have full control over public finance”. The full-blown debt and foreign reserves based financial crisis and the humanitarian crisis that is presently unfolding as a result, is proof positive of the Parliament’s abdication of the sovereign duties and responsibilities it is vested with per the said Constitutional provision. Moreover, the reverberating effects of the debacle that started out as the “100% organic agriculture policy” is proof that the Parliament, and more to the point the Government, has not been able to rein in Executive excess. This, some hypothesise, is the only inevitable state of affairs that can be expected when it is the tragedy of the commons to have a Government with an absolute two thirds majority that is compounded by an Executive branch of Government bolstered thanks to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Regardless of whether this is in fact the case, what is avoidable however is the blasé apathy on the part of the Speaker, the Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chief Government and Opposition Whips, the Secretary General of the Parliament and the Serjeant-At-Arms, whose tenure should instead be one that sets the tenor of the proceedings in a manner that is in keeping with the esprit de corps required for the nationally important work of making law and policy. Towards this end, it is proposed that there be a system replete with mechanisms to ensure the adequate participation of MPs in the affairs of the state, and as such quotas be mandated for questions each MP needs to pose per the day’s activities of the Parliament and a similarly mandated quota of the submission of private member motions and bills on matters of public interest and concern, including legal reform, and for the Parliament to give serious consideration to the merits and demerits of the recent proposal by the Opposition concerning opportunities for MPs’ education and thereby the continuous career development and growth of our legislators and policy makers, with an eventual view to converting such gains of human capital to gains of national advancement.  In moving forward to the next Parliamentary year, one that is going to be more challenging on all fronts, it is prudent for the Parliament to use the remainder of this year to engage in a collective autopsy of sorts to identify the Jane and John Does of this pillar of democracy – the Parliament, and to check its balance.

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