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Respect Parliament

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Sri Lanka’s Parliament has a long and august history. It has been the bedrock of Sri Lanka’s democracy for decades, and remains integral to ensuring independent institutions, freedoms, and justice for all citizens. It is therefore fitting that the speech delivered by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the ceremonial commencement of Parliament in the New Year should focus on the importance of restoring respect to this historic institution. 

As pointed out by the President, the institution of Parliament and its members used to command the utmost respect at one point. To be elected to serve was an honour that was given to a handful. It was Parliamentarians, perhaps even more than the Presidents, who had the power and ability to chart Sri Lanka’s course. The fact that even after 70 years, Sri Lanka is still struggling as a developing country, is therefore at least in part the responsibility of lawmakers. It is their short-sightedness, adherence to regressive beliefs, and siding with outdated ideas and policies that has shackled Sri Lanka so that it has only realised part of its potential. 

It is typical for Parliamentarians to celebrate being in Parliament for thirty or forty years. Many of these events are replete with odes to the respective Parliamentarian, but these are largely ignored by the public. It is clear that the people are fed up of politicians in general, and Parliamentarians in particular. This is evident from the frequent calls for all 225 members to be voted out, and for new faces to replace them, so that a new political culture can be born in Sri Lanka. This is also why on 16 November, the public overwhelmingly voted for a President who has never been a Member of Parliament. 

Even though the public may not like the person who holds the seat, the role of a Parliamentarian and Parliament is important, perhaps now more than ever before to protect Sri Lanka’s democracy. President Rajapaksa called for the reputation and respect of Parliament to be restored, but this is a long and difficult road, especially when Parliament has descended into a war zone as recently as 2018, and the worst offenders of that fracas have now been appointed to key positions within Parliament. 

In the last decade and a half, or perhaps even earlier, there has been a clear effort to undermine the importance of Parliament by limiting its powers, and behaving disrespectfully in the well of the House. Many have been the times when there have been sit-ins, protests, theft of the mace, and insults hurled across the chamber. Matters have deteriorated to such an extent that schoolchildren are discouraged from attending sessions, and live feeds of Parliament are judiciously managed. The 18th Amendment was only one example of Parliament’s importance being trimmed.  

President Rajapaksa has already stated multiple times that his Government will work to increase Executive power and undermine the 19th Amendment, perhaps doing away with it altogether, and in the process reducing the power of Parliament. Unfortunately, the reality is that the more power the Executive has, the less genuine power the Legislature will have to counter excesses and improve transparency and governance. 

It is therefore imperative that Parliament, through the Committee on Public Enterprises (CoPE) and other Commissions, raise pertinent questions and hold Government members to account. Parliament must work to uphold democracy, law and order, and transparency, for in doing so it is protecting the soul of Sri Lanka.            

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