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A constitution for politicians and not the people

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 19 January 2019 00:10


With few exceptions, the citizens of this country, on account of their almost congenital mental lethargy, have never given much thought to constitution-making and the differences between a constitution that would protect the people’s interests and one that would only enhance the privileges of those to whom the people customarily delegate their legislative powers – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



By Dr. A.C. Visvalingam

Do we need a new constitution? Unquestionably yes! But the one that is being promoted at the moment is no better than our earlier Constitutions. Whilst there are many who are quibbling over the fine details of what has been published for public comment, it is imperative that we stop nit-picking and take a deeper look at the overall fundamentals. 

With few exceptions, the citizens of this country, on account of their almost congenital mental lethargy, have never given much thought to constitution-making and the differences between a constitution that would protect the people’s interests and one that would only enhance the privileges of those to whom the people customarily delegate their legislative powers. The fact is that our voters are easily lulled into unthinking acceptance of adverse constitutional provisions as long as three “magic pills” are prescribed first. 

These are: 1) The unitary status of Sri Lanka shall remain untouched, 2) Buddhism shall be given “the foremost place”, and 3) Buddhism shall be fostered and protected. The three main political parties (collectively referred to hereinafter as “AB&C”) repeat these like a mantra that sends most Sri Lankans into an anaesthetised state that prevents them from recalling the number of times that this very mantra has been employed over the past seven decades to prevent them from looking critically at the many other crucial issues that a good constitution must address. 

Once this state of passivity dulls the critical faculties of our people, AB&C find no barrier to conspiring jointly to structure the constitution so as to secure and enhance the powers and privileges always enjoyed by Parliament, ministers and MPs.  

If citizens examine the Constitution mindfully, they will see that several of its key features need to be given more than superficial attention. On account of space restrictions, only five or six aspects will be considered here for the present. 

The number and quality of MPs 

The proposal to increase the number of MPs is unconscionable. There is no good reason why there should be 233 MPs or any such useless excess. The rapid growth in the quota of MP slots in the past was definitely attributable to the desire of the party leaders of AB&C to have more and more such slots at their disposal in order to be able to reward ever greater numbers of their supporters at public expense. 

Many countries more efficiently governed than ours have far smaller legislatures. By looking at well-ruled states of similar size, one cannot see any justification for our wishing to have more than around 125 MPs. This limit can be further justified if one looks at the actual attendance records of our 225 MPs, about half of whom have been robbing the resources of the country without doing an honest term’s work. Patently, therefore, 50% of this number (say, 125) would be quite sufficient.      

To help voters to make informed choices, it would clearly be of immense value if every candidate for elected office is required to fill in at least a two-sided, A4-sized application form giving details of their age, address, contact details, educational background, professional qualifications (if any), working experience and social services rendered. 

Political parties should be required to furnish copies of these to each household in the relevant electorates in Sinhala, Tamil or English according to the householders’ language instead of squandering valuable resources on holding disruptive public meetings, marching in processions, and deafening the people with low-fidelity, high volume loudspeakers. 

A provision should be introduced for the accurate monitoring of the attendance and participation of MPs in the debates of the House and its committees. Failure to do enough work to justify the remuneration, allowances and numerous privileges that MPs are given should be assessed in an objective manner from the records maintained by the Secretary-General of Parliament and the public kept informed through the newspapers. 

Whilst we want our MPs to be more competent and honest, we cannot attain this goal unless the remuneration offered is no less attractive than in the private sector. No capable person, in view of his duty to himself and his family, should be expected to sacrifice his entire future security for the love of his country. If, however, we reduce the number of MPs and drop the idea of a Senate, it may well become possible to match the rewards for good MPs in public service with the rewards in the private sector.

Number of Ministries 

Both India and the USA have even fewer ministries than Sri Lanka for populations ranging from 15-50 times that of Sri Lanka. A few years ago, after taking into account Sri Lanka’s land area, population and administrative history, the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) studied Constitution-related matters and, inter alia, recommended that there be only 25 ministries. 

Why Sri Lankan politicians of AB&C want far more ministerial positions nowadays is to facilitate the bribing of MPs of other parties to change their allegiance. Because flitting from one party to another is expected to be forbidden in the future, one must beware of allowing alternative loopholes (such as “coalition enhancements”) to permit Cabinets of more than 25 ministers.  

The pressure on party leaders to reward importunate party members with ministerial positions can be done away with if, at their respective pre-election party conventions, each participant is given, say, three voting cards that they mark secretly, in order of preference, to indicate which three of their members they would prefer to have in positions of authority. 

Once all the votes are counted, it would become clear as to who are the party’s most respected members. The one who gets the most votes should automatically be declared the party leader. Each member in the party’s list of favourite members, in order of popularity, should be asked to indicate their three preferred ministries. 

The leader chosen by the party would be obliged to respect the recorded order of popularity and assign the available ministries accordingly. Thus, a prime minister would not be faced with a situation where MPs who lack sufficient support within their party demand that they be given Cabinet-level ministries. 

Proposal to have a Senate 

An independent Senate, if it is directly elected by the people, may theoretically be useful. However, if Senators are appointed, as one may expect will be the case in Sri Lanka, this body would merely become a means of rewarding those who give generous financial and logistical support to political parties. 

That is, by creating a Senate, public money would have to be spent on persons who finance political parties for their private benefit even though debates in the Senate will be presented to the people in such a way as to generate the false impression that Senators are independent of Parliamentary hegemony.

If Senators are not directly elected, who would appoint the Senators? Nominally, the Non-Executive President? But, is he going to choose all of them by himself? Alternatively, will he appoint Senators only from lists furnished by AB&C? On what criteria? 

The sittings of Parliament are said to cost more than Rs. 25 million per day. Now, a Senate would require a grand new building, furniture and fittings, a vast array of electronic equipment, duty-free luxury limousines, administrative and support staff, as well as ancillaries that could entail a capital outlay of Rs. 2-5 billion. Moreover, its daily upkeep may cost Rs. 10-15 million. Senators would also probably be given all-expenses-paid, annual “study” trips to those countries that have a Senate! 

The word “Supreme”

It should be made unmistakably clear in the Constitution that it is the People who are supreme. Other than in the case of the time hallowed “Supreme Court”, all efforts to call Parliament or the President or the Prime Minister “supreme” should not be countenanced. 

A united nation and a strong Sri Lankan identity

As long as there is any form of discrimination in the Constitution between the rights and privileges accorded to the various racial and religious groups in the country, there cannot be a united country with a strong Sri Lankan identity. This issue, although it is likely to be papered over for the present, is not going to disappear. A constitutional re-write 30 years from now may well have to be secular one. 

It is imperative that the language- and religion-based segregated streaming of schoolchildren be reversed, at least partially for the moment, if unity is to be achieved. A minimal move in this direction in the new constitution would be giant step forward. Otherwise, Sri Lanka would spend too much energy on entrenching disunity which must be eradicated if it is ever to reach its true potential, which is vast.

As limitations of space have permitted only five or six constitutional topics to be considered here, those who are interested may consider referring to the numerous articles that can be accessed at www.cimogg-srilanka.org (which site is still functioning) on a wide range of constitution-related issues that have not been touched upon here but are highly relevant to assessing the quality of a constitution.

It is up to the public to be eternally vigilant to see that the persons to whom they, in all good faith, entrust the powers of Government do not take the people for a ride. 

(The writer is Rtd Engineering Consultant and can be reached via acvisva@gmail.com.)

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