Parliament is at the centre of a firestorm after key Government Ministers failed to show up in the House to respond to questions raised by the Opposition. In a tense session on Thursday all 15 questions that were to be replied by Government Parliamentarians went unanswered. Adding insult to injury later on in the day when amendments to the Export Development Board Act were to be passed the subject minister was unavailable to make statements and when the Opposition, sensing a weak spot, demanded a vote, it had to be postponed for another day due to the lack of Government MPs.
Most citizens are aware that creating or making legislative changes is an uphill battle in Sri Lanka. There is a labyrinth to be negotiated made up of red tape, a sluggish public sector system, under-resourced departments and laborious public consultation. There are also multiple rounds of Cabinet approval, gazette issuance, oversight committees and amendments that have to be negotiated before a piece of legislation is finally ready to be voted on by Parliament.
This is usually a process that takes years. In this instance amendments to the Export Development Board Act were to update a piece of legislation that was passed in 1985 and aimed at making it easier for new exporters to start their business and operate more easily in Sri Lanka. This was also in line with Government plans to improve Sri Lanka’s rankings in the Ease of Doing Business index compiled by the World Bank.
Despite repeated assurances by the Government to improve Sri Lanka’s standing in the index, this has been partly stymied by other countries implementing regulatory and legislative changes faster than Sri Lanka has been able to. In the competitive sphere of global trade it is essential that countries work not only to adjust themselves but do so in a time-bound manner so they are not left behind in the race to have a larger space in the global market place. This has unfortunately been a longstanding issue in Sri Lanka where despite good policies being presented, making the necessary legal changes and implementing them efficiently have been unimpressive.
Even though the country has been gripped by frenzied speculation over the upcoming Presidential Elections, what must not be ignored is that the business of Parliament must continue. Parliament, technically at least, has till August 2020 to fulfil its mandate and during that time governance responsibilities have to be discharged. Whatever issues that are happening at party level and in connection to the Presidential Election cannot be allowed to impact Parliament. Therefore the Opposition accusation that Government Parliamentarians were absent because they were all focused on the rally unfolding in Kurunegala is a serious one and this should not be allowed to happen again.
In the next few months there are multiple pieces of legislation that need to be passed by Parliament. A new Monetary Policy Act to improve the independence of the Central Bank and prevent excessive money printing, a new Banking Act and other legislation to strengthen governance deserve the full attention of Parliament. These are all important pieces of legislation that have been in the pipeline since 2016 at least and they cannot be treated in this cavalier manner.
Parliamentarians are elected by the people and ultimately they must act in the people’s interest. Refusing to be present in Parliament to respond to questions is undermining one of the most important aspects of transparency entrusted to the House. Parliament members have a responsibility to protect the reputation and powers of the House, not just enjoy its privileges.