“The country shouldn’t repeat the same mistake that happened with the 1978 Constitution. If we say that was J. R. Jayawardena’s Constitution, why are we allowing Ranil Wickremesinghe to do the same?” queries Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna National List Parliamentarian and Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Sunil Handunnetti. Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe wants to have his own way when enacting a new Constitution, Handunnetti claims, adding that the JVP will only support a new Constitution if it is done according to Parliament standing orders.
As the first JVP parliamentarian to head COPE, he points out key changes in the committee under his leadership in order to make State institutions free of fraud, corruption and waste.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What changes have taken place at COPE since you assumed duties as the head of the committee?
A: COPE will officially start calling institutions from 26 January. We need to give a considerable time for these institutions before we call for their reports. From 26 January we will start meeting State institutions such as the Ceylon Electricity Board and People’s Bank.
There is one significant change that we hope to implement. At present, the representation of public in COPE matters is minimal. What takes place inside COPE is undisclosed to the public, other than the final report. But we want to change this setup. We feel there should be more transparency. The public should be aware of what COPE is doing.
This doesn’t mean we are going to divulge all information regarding inquiries that are taking place. For example if we are inquiring about an official who has played out money in a particular State organisation, information regarding the officer or other confidential details will not be released to the public until we finish the case. But people will be aware that such a case is been inquired at COPE. We function from people’s money and we are answerable to the public and State institutions are not private property. People in the country have the right to know what happens in these institutions. Therefore, I see involving people as a step forward.
Q: How are you planning to create transparency?
A: Standing orders are the biggest drawback. But we have already opened this to the public through our website. Through the parliamentary website we will publicise the institutions that we call for. Any individual, trade union or organisation can write to us regarding these institutions. This information will be confidential.
Another change would be publicising of COPE reports every three months. This is purely for the purpose of public information. After we submit a report to the Parliament, we will make that information available to people through the media.
The biggest problem with COPE is that once a report is published, no action is taken to rectify those mistakes. The result or the outcome of the report is the most important thing. Putting out a report is not what needs to be done. Ensuring such mistakes do not repeat themselves in the future is what is important. In order to do that, we are hoping to set up committees to follow up on the published reports. These committees will study whether the Cabinet, Attorney General, the Bribery Commission and relevant ministers have taken action regarding findings of the COPE report.
Q: Can you explain more about the composition of this follow up committee?
A: We see similar committees in India and New Zealand. In India, COPE appoints study groups who will visit institutions and carry out spot inspections. We too hope to appoint professionals who have knowledge and experience in relevant fields. We might have to change standing orders in order to do this.
Q: Is there a specific time frame to appoint these committees?
A: At the moment I am unable to give an exact time period. But there is a proposal to appoint these committees and we will do it.
Q: How many State institutions were called for inquiries?
A: We have shortlisted 23 institutions that will be studied during the next three months. There are 427 State institutions and departments that are answerable to the Parliament, come under the Ministry of Finance and audited by the Auditor General. The 19th Amendment now allows COPE to call for companies in which the Government has financial stake.
Q: Will you be taking any action on the findings of COPE reports by previous committees?
A: It is purely up to the executive to take action regarding the findings of the previous COPE reports. Previously, once a report is published, the task of the COPE ends there and from there it is up to the executive to take action regarding those findings. COPE can only make recommendations.
However, the follow up committees I mentioned before will hereafter ensure that the ministry, Auditor General or the Bribery and Corruption Department will take action on these findings. If they fail to take any action, the committee has the authority to inquire into that too.
If we can implement this method, I am certain that people will no longer have the perception the COPE is only there to publish reports. But in order to do that, we need to make certain changes with regards to standing orders. The purpose of COPE should not be to catch thieves; our purpose should be to create an environment where there are no thieves. When there are no thieves, we need not worry about how to catch thieves. In simple, what we need is a change in the system. We need to strengthen a mechanism that prevents fraud, corruption and waste. Unfortunately, the previous regime encouraged fraud and corruption and it became a common practice among everyone.
If we allow the media to report about COPE activities, there will be fewer cases. No thief wants the world to know he steals. If the media exposes each and every fraud and corruption case that takes place, those who are involved will feel hesitant. I assure you if we can implement these simple methods, we will be able to prevent corruption, fraud and waste by 50%.
Q: How optimistic are you that this new system will be successful?
A: To date, there has not been a single political interference. In other countries, Public Enterprise Committees are headed by an Opposition member. When a cabinet minister heads COPE, there are questions over whether his responsibilities are towards the Parliament or the Cabinet. Since I represent the Opposition, I don’t face such issues. I can be independent when carrying out my duties. That is the biggest plus point.
Meanwhile, when COPE inquires about a particular institution and the minister in charge of the institution happens to be a member of COPE, then people can question whether the committee has been impartial and unbiased. There were incidents where members interfered in such cases. There were COPE members who tried to safeguard their friends during serious inquiries. Now we have come to an agreement that when the committee discusses a case relevant to a member, that person should not participate in committee meetings. But this only happens when his ministry or subjects under his purview are taken into discussion.
Q: Why is the JVP against the Government’s decision to bring a new Constitution?
A: What are they trying to bring in? Where is the Constitution? To support or oppose there has to be a Constitution. But where is the Constitution? Nobody knows anything about the so-called Constitution.
Q: The JVP is against the executive presidency. You insist on changing the election system. But when the Government wants to make these changes your party is opposing it. Why?
A: From day one we have been very clear that we are against the present Constitution. This Constitution is all about controlling the people according to the whims and fancies of the rulers. This Constitution does not fulfil the desires of the people. The Government has only introduced a mechanism to draft the Constitution. They say they will get the ideas of people. Before asking people, the Government should first have a framework as to what the Constitution should be. As the Government, they should put forward a structure saying this is how we want the Constitution to be. Then other parties can express their likes, dislikes, suggestion and so on.
Q: But the Government has very clearly said the Constitution will be drafted by all 225 members of the Parliament as a committee of the whole House. Don’t you think this method gives more opportunity to members?
A: This is ridiculous. Haven’t you heard the phrase ‘too many cooks will spoil the soup’? That is exactly what is going to happen to the Constitution. What they suggest is not practical.
Q: What are you suggesting?
A: This Government was formed by the UNP and UPFA. If they want to bring in a new Constitution, first they should tell us what their recommendations are. There should be a framework. They should clearly tell us what changes they want to make. Once we are clear about the stand of the Government we can either agree or disagree with those changes or recommendations.
When bringing a new Constitution it has to be approved by a two thirds majority. After discussing it for months, if the Government does not agree with what we suggest and don’t approve it at the end, it will be a waste of time. Do you think the Government will agree to a Constitution suggested by JVP or any other Opposition party? They want ‘their Constitution’. So without wasting time, they should submit their framework for others to proceed from there.
This Government is not genuinely interested in changing the Constitution. They are trying to make people forget about the other important issues that are taking place in the country by trying to create a constitutional stir. They don’t want the people to talk about the economic crisis. They don’t have answers to the daily increasing cost of living. They have failed to deliver what they have promised to the people. Their best remedy is to ignite a constitutional crisis.
Q: So the JVP is not against bringing a new Constitution; it is the process adopted by the Government in drafting it that you oppose?
A: Yes. That’s our stand. There is no doubt that we are for a new Constitution. But the Government does not have a right to hoodwink people in this manner when bringing a Constitution.
What we suggest is that the Government should submit their proposal. This should take place according to parliamentary standing orders. The method should be within the parliamentary system; we will not support anything that is outside the parliamentary framework.
We criticise the 1978 Constitution saying it is J.R. Jayawardena’s Constitution. Who knows, this will be Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Constitution? We want a Constitution but it cannot be something that represents the wishes of one individual. We know it is not possible to bring something that is agreed on by everyone. But it at least should have approval of the majority.
Q: The clash between the JVP and Kumar Gunarathna’s Frontline Socialist Party worsens by the day. Are you threatened by Gunarathnam and his party?
A: They were never a threat to us. There is no clash between JVP and the FSP. These are created by the media. Newspapers and gossip websites need something to talk about. From time to time they create issues purely to increase their popularity. That’s all I can say.