The suitability of Members of Parliament for their roles

Good Governance 14 –


By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

In our discussions about the 13th Amendment, one objection suggested with regard to having Members of Parliament assessing those to be appointed to decision making positions was that they might not have time for the task. The point was politely put, on the grounds that Parliamentarians had other tasks to occupy their time, but underlying it also was the idea that they might not have the required expertise. For this reason it was suggested that they should have advisers for the purpose.

I could understand this, and that is why, in the amendment I proposed, I had an Advisory Committee. But given the standard constitutional assumption that restrictions on the discretion of the Executive should be through elected representatives of the people, I was careful to provide that that be elected by Parliament. I specified the Single Transferable Vote System which would ensure representation of a range of interests. I have been told that this would be difficult to understand, but it should be noted that this was the system in use for the elected members of the Senate in the old days, and it would be sad indeed to accept that today’s Parliamentarians would not be up to using such a system.

But, without being invidious, at the very least we can accept that, given the vast electorates they have to cover, MPs will not generally be able to fulfil all the responsibilities required of them. Given the talents and resources they have to possess or acquire in order to win election on the current mad preferential system, obviously they will not be in possession generally of the talents that are required of Parliamentarians in most parts of the world. Sadly, given the manner in which Parliament has been devalued in the last quarter of a century, there is no incentive either to acquire such capabilities. The type of training provided to Parliamentarians in the old days, when my father as Secretary General actually explained what was expected of them, has been ignored for years, given the J R Jayewardene tendency to see Parliamentarians simply as lobby fodder, kept in line through sticks and carrots.

All that is yet another argument to expedite Electoral Reform, since allowing MPs to concentrate on particular electorates will free up time and energy to actually fulfil their legislative functions. And given that each party will have to select just one individual for each constituency, they will necessarily have to engage in a thoughtful selection process, which is more likely to produce candidates with a range of skills and abilities. Parties will also be able to pick individuals of distinction for what they would regard as safe seats, since there will be no danger of what happened for instance in Kandy at the last election when Sarath Amunugama, arguably the best candidate the SLFP had in terms of intellectual and administrative competence, nearly failed to win election. And actual defeat has occurred, as we know, to other capable people such as Karunasena Kodituwakku and Milinda Moragoda.

Electoral Reform and what might be termed handpicked candidates will also help with what has turned into a massive problem in this country, namely the absurd way in which individuals are selected for ministerial office. In other countries people of conceptual capacity and administrative skills are chosen, but here the sole criteria seems to be electorability. This criteria incorporates seniority, which is understandable up to a point, but here it is a fetish. So even manifest physical incapacity is ignored and long service in Parliament means one hangs on for ever to a ministerial position. Thus in Sri Lanka reshuffle means that everyone in office keeps some position, and others are added, necessarily leading to a proliferation of ministries.

The limit we now have placed on the size of the Cabinet in the future will help with that problem, but the debate in Parliament on the subject shows just how low we have sunk. Government had in the original draft introduced exceptional provisions following the next general election, on the grounds that, if there were a National Government, there would need to be more plums of office to hand around. So one of the most interesting and positive pledges in the President’s manifesto, that a scientifically determined Cabinet would be set up, was completely ignored.

In fact government went further, and wanted to introduce yet another amendment at committee stage, to remove even the limit of 100 following the next election. The argument was that any limit might prevent parties coming together to form a national government. Underlying that was the assumption that the only reason people would join a national government was to enjoy ministerial positions.

That is a demeaning view of politicians. It is understandable however that the present administration thinks anyone can be bought, given past experience in bringing down two SLFP led governments, in 1964 and in 2001. But that involved money, whereas the amendments envisaged that what the government evidently thinks is also bribery was to be entrenched in the Constitution.

At a recent discussion on the reforms, Dr Saravanamuttu brought up the position we had advocated during the Liberal Party consultations on Constitutional Reform, that an Executive Presidency was best served (as in the United States and France and Russia) by a Cabinet outside Parliament. That in turn would free up Parliamentarians to fulfil their main responsibilities, of legislation and monitoring and financial oversight, more effectively. That position was put in the proposals both Vasantha Senanayake and the Liberal Party put to the Parliamentary select committee, and I do hope that and other rationalizations we suggested will be taken up in any future discussions about constitutional reform.

But I think it unlikely that Parliamentarians themselves will give up what seems the greatest incentive for many of them to enter Parliament, namely the prospect of Ministerial office. It would instead take much greater understanding in Civil Society, as well as amongst the citizens in general, as to how executive positions are taken up in other countries on the basis of capacity in addition to political skills.

Here the assumption is that such skills are only with regard to the winning of votes. But we should not be surprised that Parliamentarians accept this, given that there are no opportunities within Parliament for them to exercise other skills. That is why the pledge in the President’s manifesto about strengthening Parliament was so important. I continue to do my best to change Standing Orders to actually give Members of Parliament an opportunity to deploy their intellectual and managerial skills. But with this government as loathe to share power as the last, it is an uphill task.

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