Strengthening institutions and organizational
The dominant function of MPs and Ministers
I have looked thus far at the Sri Lankan Parliament, and its failure
to fulfil properly the essential duties of a Legislature. These are the
making of Laws, and financial oversight, through both the Budget and
control of financial expenditure.
Most Members of Parliament do not however understand that these are
their main responsibilities. Rather they believe that their principal
function is representational, ie that they are in Parliament to
represent the interests of those who voted for them.
This is true, but the problem is that they do not understand their
collective responsibilities as Parliamentarians, to make sure that laws
are made, and public funds are expended, in the interests of the people.
Rather, they think only of their individual responsibility, which is
connected with the need to continue to be Parliamentarians.
This explains the fact that most interventions in Parliament relate
to the individual needs of constituents. There are exceptions in the
questions asked by Opposition Members, which are intended sometimes to
draw attention to general problems, but even they often lapse into
personal considerations. The fact that hardly any Government Members ask
questions is indicative of the general view that policy – and its
practice on a wider scale – is not their business.
Parliament proceedings. File photo
One cannot blame them however, given the lackadaisical approach to
answering such questions on the part of Ministers. The Speaker has tried
to remedy this, but has not succeeded. Similarly, the failure of
Government Members, except for a handful, to move Adjournment Motions is
also understandable, since hardly anyone waits to hear what is said on
Plethora of Bills
Indeed, it is rarely that the House has more than a handful of
Members when speeches are made, as was apparent during the discussion on
the plethora of Bills passed in early April.
Members did flock in for the vote, given that the JVP asked for a
division (the UNP decided that the matter was not of great concern to
them, and were absent), but the discussion did not seem of concern.
Again, this is understandable, given the basically technical nature of
most of the Bills, but it was a pity that some of the issues of
principle that the Opposition raised were not heard or responded to
The role of casinos and the process of resettlement for instance are
both issues that should concern Parliament as a whole, but since they
are not of immediate concern to individual electorates, they are thought
to merit little attention.
The real business of Parliamentarians then, as exemplified in the
issues raised in Consultative Committees, when they meet, is the
particular problems of electorates. But while these should not be
ignored – and as a National List MP without such concerns I need to
emphasize that I recognize their importance for my colleagues, as well
as the voters they represent – Parliament is not the forum in which they
should be raised.
Rather, the Ministries that need to resolve such problems should
allocate time for Members to raise concerns with particular officials,
without all Members and all officials having to get involved in the
question of whether a particular Principal should be transferred or a
particular family be given Disaster Relief. Unfortunately this concern
with particular problems also now extends to the Executive.
The increasing pressure from Members of Parliament to become
Ministers springs primarily from the need to wield sufficient influence
to do more for particular electorates. The most obvious example of this
is the decision of Mangala Samaraweera, when asked to choose one of the
two Ministries he presided over in 2006, to select Ports and Aviation
rather than the Foreign Ministry in which he had performed impressively,
as the European Union proscription of the LTTE evinced. However he
wanted a portfolio in which he could as it were provide jobs for his
This is common practice. I remember being astonished, nearly two
decades ago, to find that all the security staff at the South Eastern
University came from Galle, but naturally Richard Pathirana as Minister
of Education had used his position to give jobs to his constituents. The
flip side of this, I was told, in defence as it were by the security
guards at Oluvil, was that Galle Harbour was manned by people from
Amparai, since Mr Ashraff was then the Minister of Ports.
The sheer lunacy of such a system is difficult to grasp however for
those caught up in it. And the situation is made worse for those now
involved in electoral politics because of the enormous size of the
constituencies they represent.
Given the need to win preferences from the voters of an entire
District, it is no wonder that the energies of both Ministers and
Members are devoted to the welfare of their constituents – and no wonder
that all Members seek executive office, since the influence they
otherwise command is insufficient to ensure continuing popularity.
Given that now the playing field is so unbalanced as it were between
Ministers and ordinary Members on the government side, it is obvious
that the President will be under immense pressure to create even more
portfolios – and this explains the absurdity, unique to Sri Lanka, that
Ministers who have not performed well are not retired, but simply
shifted to another portfolio, even one that has no actual functions.
This is not a feature of this government alone. I remember being
astonished, looking through the 2003 budget estimates, to find that
Ranil Wickremesinghe, supposedly a paragon of financial responsibility,
had several Ministries with no operational budgets.
The funds of the people were spent to maintain establishments, with
the attached perks, simply to allow restive Members to have Ministerial
Sadly, Jayewardene in introducing his Executive Presidency, ignored
the principle he had enunciated in his manifesto, and which obtains
elsewhere in the world for Executive Presidents, of having Ministers
from outside Parliament. That alone will allow Ministers, and Members,
to fulfil their real responsibilities.