Will The Good Times Come To Sri Lankans?

Do parliamentarians live up to the people’s expectations?

They do that for want of political power – including all the benefits they could get for themselves

Shouldn’t they be all keen to perform their duties and responsibilities in a dignified and decorous manner with dedication?

As in the Army, Navy, or Air Force, in Parliament Secretariat too, the very condition of the existence of discipline is of paramount importance

by Lacille de Silva (Sunday Leader) 

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya

In Sri Lanka, do parliamentarians live up to the people’s expectations? In a so called parliamentary system of government, with an executive president, the parliament, in my view, is simply an appendage. I have therefore my doubts whether political leaderships are keen to find ways and means to improve the quality of members’ participation to ensure that they perform their duties to the benefit of the countrymen.

In the current Parliament, we could observe acute divisions with different ulterior motives. Parliamentarians fight with each other having totally disregarded Standing Orders, practices, procedures and conventions. Why do they do that? They do that for want of political power – including all the benefits they could get for themselves.

Prior to the elections, they made various promises. Are they keen to lead the country to prosperity having fulfilled the promises?

Could we expect different parties and their leaders in Parliament to come forward to find ways and means to improve the quality of members’ participation? I do not think they would voluntarily commit themselves to do so. Political party leaderships, party whips together with the Speaker must therefore ensure that the members perform the legitimate parliamentary duties, such as taking part in proceedings of the House with keenness and efficiency in Committees. Shouldn’t they be all keen to perform their duties and responsibilities in a dignified and decorous manner with dedication?  It is my experience that the payment of sitting allowance had been introduced to attract parliamentarians to attend Committee meetings as an incentive since 1970s.

However, in early 1990s, it was I who submitted the proposal to increase the sitting allowance from Rs. 100 to 500 when the PAC/COPE secretariat came under me presuming that attendance in all Committees would improve if the allowance is increased sharply. What happened? Even after increasing the allowance, our staff had to go behind searching for MPs to form the quorum. I understand that steps are being taken to increase the sitting allowance to Rs. 15,000. What a waste it will be? This is a matter that should be seriously analysed before draining government funds (may I now say ‘bribes’) in an irresponsible manner.

It is my sincere feeling, unless the Speaker decides to act firmly, there is nothing that could be done to improve Parliament. The Parliament may I say is a serious ‘mess’, where parliamentarians and the staff are concerned. Let me add, in Parliament, I had served dozens of Speakers and it was only Joseph Michael Perera, who sincerely took necessary steps to attend to necessary reforms. He arranged to obtain UNDP funds to push through reforms and it finally became a flop. The Auditor-General’s reports in that connection had also been craftily pushed under the carpet.

What is the Speaker’s role in such an imbroglio? He should conduct his business with firmness in accordance with the Standing Orders, customs and precedents. Secretary-General plays and important role to guide the Speaker on the right track. We must not forget the fact that the Speaker’s job is not easy when politicians with different perceptions work with different motives. Conducting business in our Parliament therefore is a tough task mainly because the top officials too are totally non-committal, evasive and self-centred.

Nevertheless, the role of the Speaker and the Secretary-General in a Westminster-style Parliament is a difficult one. The image of democracy as a form of government depends upon the Parliament. And the image of Parliament, in turn, depends upon the image of parliamentarians. In fact, the success of the democratic governance itself depends upon the way the parliamentarians perform their duties and responsibilities. They are tasked with the responsibility to take country forward selflessly for the benefit of their countrymen. Hence their behaviour, their dedication and commitment in Parliament and elsewhere would contribute collectively to set new standards and reach improved levels of parliamentary standards. Will they do that?

Let me also deal about the role of members of the Staff of Parliament. Discipline in simple terms could be described as the force that compels individuals/employees to observe rules, regulations and policies in an organization. In Parliament, a Code of Conduct has been introduced a couple of years ago by the former Secretary-General of Parliament Dhammika Kitulgoda, with the approval of the Staff Advisory Committee (SAC) owing to the need to observe a prescribed procedure to achieve the institutional goals for the benefit of the parliamentarians and the country.

How can an institution disregard a Code of Conduct which covers a vast area and sets out the necessary rules regarding performance of duties, political neutrality, disclosure of information pertaining to Parliament,etc. It is therefore my firm belief that manipulation and lack of ethics lead to humongous negative effects and reduces efficiency and effectiveness in an organization.

I have no doubt the Speaker is therefore having a gigantic task since the Parliamentary secretariat has finally become just another government establishment. Shouldn’t we do the needful in the parliament secretariat to change the existing culture to ensure whether the duties entrusted to the staff has been done/or not done. In Parliament, the contemporaneous mechanism – supervision, to ascertain whether the duties entrusted to an officer has been duly attended is largely inconspicuous.

Furthermore, the senior management in Parliament resist change. They also do not follow the rules applicable in the public sector organizations, such as the Establishment Code or other Public Administration Circulars. This is another reason why a specific code of conduct had to be introduced to overcome numerous administrative deficiencies in human resource management. Parliamentary employees are required to maintain high ethical standards and protect the honour of the institution they serve.

Let me quote “Control is necessary for the psychological balance in one’s life; it is a common trait of human beings to want control in their lives” – Glasser. As in the Army, Navy, or Air Force, in Parliament Secretariat too, the very condition of the existence of discipline is of paramount importance.

Could we achieve desired results without necessary reforms in the Parliamentary Secretariat? Parliamentary Secretariat Reform is essentially the improvement of the art and science of managing the parliamentary secretariat. Parliamentarians of the calibre of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gemini Dissanayake, A.C.S. Hammed, Ronnie de Mel, Lakshman Jayakody and many more demanded excellent performance with efficiency from the parliamentary secretariat. I am sad the present parliamentarians do not expect high standards and the staff too therefore do not improve themselves. This is another reason why we need to elect competent, knowledgeable and hardworking legislators as our representatives.

Media carried a news item where a senior officer had occupied the seat of the Speaker in the Chamber. I have never heard a similar episode in a career spanning over three decades in the past. The speaker is the principal office holder in Parliament. The Speaker is the third citizen in the country. The Speaker’s authority is derived from the Parliament. He is answerable to the House because he is elected by the House. He could also be removed from office by a vote in the House. I don’t understand what a blockhead to go and occupy Speaker’s chair?

As the Speaker, he ensures that the proceedings of the House are conducted in an orderly manner. I have no doubt the Speaker has all the desire to make it a better place. If he is also going to fail like most of the other Speakers, I have no uncertainty it is because the new holders of high offices are reluctant to take good decisions. The storm therefore will pass. Will the good times come?

Lacille de Silva is a Former Director (Administration) – Parliament and Former Secretary to PRECIFAC.

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