Inadequate Constitutional Proposals


by Dr A.C.Visvalingam

President, CIMOGG

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has been looking at the various proposals that are being put forward by many vested and non-vested interests calling for the present Constitution to be amended or rewritten. What is striking about all these proposals is that they are, for all practical purposes, founded on the half-built or badly damaged foundations of the three Constitutions that we have had since 1947. Marginal improvements in governance, abolition of the Executive Presidency, and token undertakings to give power back to the People are included in most of these proposals; but what is unsaid is what really says a great deal!

We have had three new Constitutions covering a period of just over six decades. This shows that we have not thought deeply enough on the subject all three times. Indeed, it is our mental inertia and political myopia that have led to this state of affairs, quite apart from the overwhelming greed to build in electoral advantages for the Constitution-making party. We are reminded of what the famous engineer, Professor Hardy Cross (the inventor of the "moment distribution method"), stated in his book ENGINEERS AND IVORY TOWERS, that most people would not mind doing any amount of extra work to get a task completed, however badly, rather than spend time on thinking of how to do it properly. We, too, seem to be headed towards yet another unsatisfactory Constitution that will have to be re-written in another 20-25 years, if not before.

In the circumstances, CIMOGG plans to bring to the notice of the public some vital issues that have not been given adequate attention in the proposals that have been most widely publicized hitherto. Given below is the first instalment of CIMOGG’s concerns.

We shall start with the selection of candidates.

Apart from the widely practised corruption that the public perceive in the political world, the vast majority of citizens are disgusted with the behaviour of our politicians both within and outside their respective legislative chambers. The language used and the charges exchanged between politicians would "make a sailor blush". Schoolchildren have had to be herded out of Parliament’s Visitors’ Gallery on more than one occasion so that they would not be witness, inter alia, to the exchanging of unforgivably filthy language, damaging State property by setting fire to documents within the well of the House, throwing missiles at each other and, most disgusting of all, even physically attacking the genitals of a monk MP. The question that we have is whether the proposals made by any of proponents of Constitution-making will have inbuilt barriers to help keep out grossly undesirable characters from entering Parliament and other elected bodies? If not, why not?

We are informed by the media at far too frequent intervals that members of some legislative chamber or other have been credibly accused of murder, rape, assault, violation of environmental laws, giving protection to drug-dealers, smugglers, land-grabbers and so on. Do we have to continue with the situation where the Police are dissuaded from effectively investigating such offences by pressures from powerful quarters? Will future Attorneys General belatedly find that they have "erred" in indicting a criminal and are compelled by unseen powers to withdraw the charges even without obtaining the leave of Court to do so? Do we want to see cheque cheats being fined by Courts, instead of being jailed, and then being sponsored as candidates for election to Parliament or elsewhere?

The list is endless. How will the new constitutional proposals being offered help to put a stop to this kind of situation continuing to arise in the future? Merely stating that the 17th Amendment will be improved and brought back to replace the anti-democratic 18th Amendment is far from enough.

We now turn to electioneering.

It has been reported, without rebuttal, that a Cabinet Minister had stated last year that a person wishing to become a candidate for election to Parliament should be able to raise Rs50 million if he is to have any serious chance of success. What he failed to mention is that most such candidates would almost certainly secure the greater part of such funds from crooked businessmen, tavern-keepers, brothel owners and birds of a similar feather. They would have a retinue of supporters of whom a considerable proportion would have unsavoury connections with the criminal world. Moreover, such candidates would have to be of the "right" ethnic, caste and religious background to be able to convince the oligarchies that control the major political parties to provide the necessary backing and propaganda support. It goes without saying that these candidates would be expected to leave their backbones at home when they go to meet their party leaders or to vote in Parliament or whatever other assembly to which they belong. They should undoubtedly be devoid of that possession that is called "a conscience" so that they would have no difficulty in recovering, mostly by foul means, whatever investments they would have had to make initially (ie. the Rs50 million or whatever) and also build a multitude of nest eggs for themselves and the next few generations of their families.

CIMOGG is strongly of the view that new proposals for constitutional reform must be so structured as to eliminate the kind of candidates referred to above and to include proactive provisions to enable decent, honest and hardworking citizens with public service motivation to be able to come forward to contest elections without having to find millions of rupees or even lakhs of rupees to spend on noisy, confrontational, environmentally damaging election campaigns, which cause so much disruption to the day-to-day activities of the public and place heavy demands on the security establishments. What a new Constitution should promote is favourable conditions of candidacy for citizens whom the People – and not only party oligarchies – put forward. Such candidates, if reasonably remunerated and working within a Constitution that provides for a clear separation of powers, would be very much less likely to need or want to rob the general public than the majority of the representatives we now have.

The next subject of concern is our overcrowded Parliament.

Why do we need 225 MPs? How many of the present ones have made a constructive suggestion or comment on any important issue during the entirety of their terms? Is criticizing or abusing their opposite numbers the sole sum of their service to the People? Would it be wrong to state that fewer than 50 MPs, out of the present 225, have made any useful contribution to improve the life of the People of Sri Lanka? The substantial expenditures incurred in paying MPs who do little or nothing could surely be used to better purpose. The proposals put forward to amend the Constitution should not blindly accept a figure which, subject to correction, was based on some past arbitrary MP/unit of population criterion. CIMOGG is convinced, on carefully considered grounds, that the number of MPs could usefully and profitably be limited to between 125 and 150.

It would be quite in order for the reader to wonder whether a Constitution could be framed in such as way as to meet the requirements indicated above. There is no question that this can be done if the People are prepared to think laterally without being bogged down in only what is familiar. Every great discovery or advance in the past has usually been made by individuals or small groups who were able to shed the mental shackles with which the rest indolently burdened themselves.

We shall be referring to many other equally important issues over the coming weeks.

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