Legislation, control of public finances and monitoring of affairs of the State can be considered the main responsibilities of the Parliament. What we have now is a Parliament which has completely lost its ability to legislate. It is in a state of bankruptcy as far as the subject of legislation is concerned. It has not only made the system of local government a ridiculous hoax by trying to abolish the existing Local Government law and replace it with a new law, but also caused an unbearably heavy cost burden to the country by doubling the salaries of Local Government representatives
Though with a nonsensical form, the 19th Amendment can be said to have established a parliamentary system of governance by transferring almost all the powers held by the President to the Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. But, the present Parliament is not in a position to uphold the responsibilities conferred on it as it is in a deplorable level in which it has lost its legitimacy and legality. The irony of this situation is that not only the voters and citizens, but also the Parliament itself is not conscious of this reality.
Legislation, control of public finances and monitoring of affairs of the State can be considered the main responsibilities of the Parliament. What we have now is a Parliament which has completely lost its ability to legislate. It is in a state of bankruptcy as far as the subject of legislation is concerned. It has not only made the system of local government a ridiculous hoax by trying to abolish the existing Local Government law and replace it with a new law, but also caused an unbearably heavy cost burden to the country by doubling the salaries of Local Government representatives.
Its attempt to change the Provincial Council Election Law has resulted in a situation where there is no law at all. The 19th Amendment can be cited as a classic example to demonstrate the degree of stupidity displayed by the Parliament as far as enacting laws is concerned.
Financial control and monitoring
It has failed to show competency and only shown complete failure in the sphere of control of public finance. Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy. None of the development projects initiated with foreign loans have been able to generate adequate revenue, at least to repay the loans. Economically, the country is in an extremely difficult situation, but the Government is engaged in spending money lavishly on meaningless things.
Prof. G.L. Pieris had told the media that Rs. 13,600 million had been spent on the compilation of the draft of the proposed new constitution which the Government had failed to complete. The cost incurred by the ‘Gamperaliya’ program launched in the face of election is huge. Besides these wasteful expenses, there is a program in operation to donate billions of rupees to places of worship which are very wealthy.
The Parliament has failed to display at least some degree of competence in monitoring the affairs of the State except exhibiting a dismal failure of its role. The system of Government institutions is in a degenerate level replete with inefficiency and corruption. No positive attempt seems to have been made to correct the situation.
The problem of garbage management in Sri Lanka can be cited as a classic example in this connection. Even after a large number of lives and property was destroyed following the collapse of a garbage dump, no attempt has been made to resolve the issue in a sustainable manner, which has become an insurmountable problem.
All institutions responsible for collecting Government tax revenue are in a state of extreme degeneration and corruption. The Government does not receive at least 25% of direct tax revenue that it ought to receive. Of course, the Government is well aware of this situation. Instead of finding a solution to amend the fault, the deficit is being recovered continuously from indirect taxes imposed heavily on consumer goods used by the general public. Ultimately, it is the poor citizens who are compelled to pay for the inefficiency of the Government.
A system to allow Opposition members to join the Government by a judicial decision was implemented during the regime of Chandrika Kumaratunga. Despite it being a grave error that violated the Constitution and undermined the foundation of the system of governance, it was not even taken up for serious discussion, let alone rectifying it.
The beginning of the decline
It was during the 1960-’64 Government of Sirima Bandaranaike that the recommendation of the Government MP of the area became an indispensable requirement to obtain employment from Secretary to a Ministry down to garbage cleaner, and also to obtain land, home, export licenses or anything from the Government. The UNP Government that came to power thereafter pursued this ugly system without changing it.
By the 1970s, political recommendation became an essential condition not only to obtain an employment but also to ensure job security. Transferring of teachers and other Government officials on political reasons became a commonplace practice. The Coalition Government which was in power limited private land ownership to 50 acres per person by the Land Reform Law No. 1 of 1972 and sterling company land was taken over by the Government under the second Land Reform Act of 1974. Eventually, the Government MPs of the area became the indirect estate superintendents of these lands.
By this, a vicious system was established, rendering the general public a helpless and innocent lot unable to do anything without the blessings of the MPs. This ugly situation made it impossible for the people to survive without selecting and supporting one of the two main political parties. This situation changed the public character of the Members of Parliament as well.
Decline turned into degeneration
It was after the establishment of the presidential system in 1978 that the decline of the MPs began to turn into a dismal level of degeneration. With that, the Parliament lost its sovereignty and the Parliamentarians became a set of people without self-esteem who were ready to dance to the tune of the president. If this situation had created displeasure in the MPs, what President J.R. Jayewardene did was to build a new parliamentary complex superficially imposing and equipped with state-of-the-art luxury amenities and allow them to plunder State property at their whim and fancy to keep them happy.
The extension of the official term of Parliament where the government had a five-sixth majority by an amendment to the Constitution can be considered the most important turning point in the process of degeneration of Parliament.
Another significant auxiliary feature added to this horrific process was that the President J.R. Jayewardene demanded all MPs of the ruling party to handover their letters of resignation undated to him and the Parliamentarians too adhered to it, throwing their self-esteem to the winds. With these deplorable acts connected to each other, the loss of dignity of Parliament as well as the process of its deformation and degeneration was accelerated.
The selfishness of Parliamentarians
There occurred a drastic change in the way the Parliamentarians used to think followed by the loss of legitimacy of the Parliament itself. They became only concerned with their personal benefits and were extremely greedy in amassing wealth by undue means, thereby ignoring their duties and responsibilities to the people and the country as the people’s representatives. The presidents also fostered this tendency in them.
Generally, in no other democratic countries are MPs provided with luxury vehicles on duty free basis and fuel costs for those cars except for reimbursing the travel expenses on public transport. Moreover, the selling or transferring the ownership of tax-free vehicles is a punishable offence under the Customs Act. Initially, all the presidents acted to exempt the MPs from this law. Later, they were allowed to sell their duty free vehicles and earn a large income.
The MPs are now given a monthly allowance of Rs. 100,000 to maintain an office. But it is not mandatory to run an office for that amount. Those who wish can avail themselves of this allowance without having to run an office. Aren’t the Government regulations on the use of public money applicable to MPs?
The Ministers have been authorised to maintain a private staff at the expense of the Government, in addition to the official staff provided by the Government. It can be considered a corrupt system designed to give ministers and their wives and children privileged jobs. The annual expenditure on salaries and fuel expenses of ministers’ private staff can amount to billions of rupees for a year. How can it be justified to pay huge expense of a private staffing system when ministers have been provided with a large official staff?
I have heard that there is a tradition established in which the expenditure on alcohol, food and entertainment incurred by all the people staying at the official quarters of ministers are being met by the Government. I don’t know how far this is true. It is left to the authorities to clarify the actual situation. If it is true, needless to say, it is a very ugly situation.
MPs and criminals
During the period of riots, Members of Parliament were allowed to set up and maintain private security forces. Those attached to private armies were given arms training and weapons to use. There was a real death threat to MPs during the JVP’s second insurgency. But the private military system led to give MPs a look of a criminal.
Those who joined private armies of MPs were mostly the reputed criminals in the area. It is to these criminals in the private armies of MPs that the arms training and modern weapons were given. As a result, the residences of MPs became barracks and lodges of criminals and sometimes torture houses. The criminal elements used to kill people for the protection of MPs. In addition, some MPs used it as a pretext to kill not only their real enemies but also political opponents as well. Some MPs themselves participated actively in the assassination campaigns. Some of them killed people with their own hands.
Since the MPs were dependent on private armies for their safety, they were forced to provide unconditional protection for the criminal elements in the private armies when they committed crimes. This interconnection resulted in MPs and criminals becoming trusted allies working with mutual understanding.
Even after the end of the second JVP rebellion, this system continued to prevail due to the burst of the LTTE rebellion. This situation changed the character of the MPs. A Member of Parliament and a perpetrator of crimes became hard to recognise. Both looked more or less the same in their appearance, the way they dress, eat and drink.
This close relationship between the MPs and the criminals changed the behaviour and moral character of some MPs. Consequently, this led to the emergence of some MPs getting actively involved in crimes, some becoming drug dealers and some others becoming extortionists demanding ransoms from people.
The country needs a change of system
As far as Parliamentarians involved in serious offences are concerned, there seems to be a situation in which the enforcement of law is avoided, investigations delayed or the cases filed against them are dragged on without concluding them.
Duminda Silva is the only MP who has been sentenced to imprisonment. There are investigations being made against 29 MPs by the Bribery and Corruption Commission. The number of cases being heard in the Courts on various charges against MPs can be as high as 50. If the Parliament which can be considered the major institution that steers the State machinery is corrupt to a maximum level, how practical is it to expect it to control the corruption of other institutions?
When Court deprived Albert Silva, MP of Galle, of his Parliamentary seat on charges of doing business with the Government, President Jayewardene appointed him to Kamburupitiya electorate as its MP on the Chit system. Twenty years later, Ranil Wickremesinghe did the same thing his uncle did. He appointed Rajitha Senaratne who was deprived of his Parliamentary seat by the Court as a National List MP. Isn’t this delivering a message that we are always committed to protect MPs who do business with the Government and accept them as our political leaders?
If the Parliament and the Parliamentary system which is considered to be the dominant political institution in the country have decayed to the maximum and if the Parliamentary authorities refuse to act to correct this ugly situation treating it as a serious situation, and even the Judiciary is also not prepared to take it seriously, how could this ugly situation be rectified?
Unfortunately for the country, not only the politicians but the people of the country too have given prominence to elections and not the necessary reforms that the country needs badly. It appears that people have got used to tolerating the degeneration of the country, the way the people who live near mountains of garbage dumps tolerate the stench that emanates.
What the country needs at the moment is a change in the system that has degenerated and for it to be restored to normalcy, rather than a simple government change. It is not a thing that happens by itself. It’s a thing to be won by the people.