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World Affairs








"I've seen a gradual decline in Parliament"

Priyanee Wijesekera

The Secretary General of Parliament, Priyanee Wijesekera will end her long and distinguished career as a top public servant tomorrow, March 31.

Wijesekera, the first woman Secretary General of Parliament counting 18 years of service to the legislature itself conceded in an interview with The Sunday Leader that hers was a challenging job albeit an exciting one.

A constitutional lawyer who won the coveted Zonta International Award as a woman of achievement for her distinguished career in law and public service, Wijesekera advocates the strengthening of the institution of parliament and improving the public service to build a better Sri Lanka.

She noted with concern a decline in the quality of parliamentarians and attributed this to a possible lack of interest in studying the parliamentary process, lack of respect for the country's basic law - the constitution and the disrespect for the voter.

Wijesekera also called for the evolution of the institution of parliament and felt the rules of procedure should necessarily evolve reflecting the current needs.  Excerpts: 

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: In your long and distinguished career, what are the changes you identify between the time when you assumed office as deputy secretary general and now? What changes do you identify?

A: I don't see any drastic change. I only see a gradual decline in parliament in every aspect.

But I have noticed that the constitution itself is not receiving the due respect as the basic law of the land. People don't seem to take it very seriously and appear to flout it at will.

In contrast to the anti defection law which is why it is enshrined in the constitution, members seem to liberally switch sides making parliamentary democracy a joke. And then they blame the constitution, having willfully violated it.

Q: Do you consider it necessary to amend the Parliamentary Privileges Act and the Standing Orders to reflect the present day realities? What happened to the effort to have the Standing Orders amended?

A: I do. Everything must evolve with time and should reflect the realities of the day. The richness of procedure and conventions stem from this growth. They did not remain static.

Q: The rules of parliament and the conventions often appear to clash with most not knowing how best to combine both. What are your observations in this regard?

A: Conventions should build up on rules, not contradict the rules.

We must understand that our Standing Orders which are the basic rules of procedure were essentially based on an earlier constitution - that of 1948. They have been amended to suit the present constitution. But never have they been formulated with the present constitution in view. This is why we see disparities.

Today we find it very difficult to fit these Standing Orders to the practices of the House as a result. Today, we also have a massive cabinet of ministers. As per the rules, we should have a similar number of consultative committees. But this magnificent parliament building was designed and constructed with 24 cabinet ministers in view.

We don't have room for the large numbers we have today. There are only eight committee rooms which are woefully inadequate. So it has become a huge logistical problem to facilitate the ministers within our limited resources.

In other countries such as India and United Kingdom, parliaments have expanded and they have built annexed buildings to accommodate the physical needs. I think we also have to do something like that before things simply burst at the seams. We are reaching that point.

Q: What was your most trying moment as Secretary General of Parliament?

A: The keenly contested election of the Speaker in 2004. Subsequently I wrote to the journal published by the Commonwealth Parliaments about this unique incident. It was published. That was the only time in our parliamentary history that there was a tie in the voting. I was in the chamber together with my deputies for 11 hours to finish this vote.

We eventually had a result, though a very close one.

Q: When compared to the time when you were appointed Secretary General of Parliament and today, there is a new constitutional amendment that seeks to inject good governance into the public service and depoliticise vital public institutions. How do you view this development?

A:  The 17th Amendment was a collective effort to push the system in the right direction. Given the decline in the public service, it is vital that every possible step is taken to ensure that there is no further erosion.

To strengthen the democratic institutions, it is important for us to see full implementation of legislation that is public spirited. Our political leadership at all levels should demonstrate commitment to giving expression to this amendment. It is certainly a necessary beginning.

Q: Much is said about the general decline in the quality of parliament in the past few decades. Do you agree?

A: I most certainly see deterioration. When I first came here in 1992, things were more orderly and members took the orders of the Chair in the proper spirit. But today, every time the Chair gives a decision, the person who does not agree with it resorts to indisciplined behaviour such as shouting and obstructing.

I am very sorry to say, during the recent past, I have had the misfortune to witness some ugly scenes such like wreaths and coffins being brought into the well of the House. I don't consider that funny. It is in very bad taste.

Q: But is it not also very common among most legislatures today including the British and Indian? It seems universally applicable that legislatures are essentially on the slide where discipline is concerned?

A: Parliament is essentially and naturally a highly charged place. The atmosphere is decidedly that. Tempers run high.  But I don't think it is necessary to stoop to these levels. They are infantile and reflect badly.

And I have closely followed the British Parliament and I realise there have been some pranks. But they don't resort to ribald and gutter level exchanges. And I have always appreciated refined invective. It appears to be a dying art today.

I have read on Winston Churchill and many others who have been masters in the game of thrust and parry. Their retorts to criticisms have been so refined and amusing. I think the British Hansards carry a wealth of literature even far surpassing William Shakespeare. Such was the repartee and I think it is still so.

Lest it be forgotten, our parliament too had some interesting speeches and exchanges, but sadly I have had no time to compile them. But essentially I think the good verbal duelling belonged to the past.

Q: How do you view the legislature today in terms of discipline, debating quality and the basic knowledge in parliamentary practice?

A: I don't find any drastic alterations. Only a gradual decline. People don't respect the constitution and don't mind violating it. At all levels, there is a decline which is sad.

Q: Do you feel that it is the PR system that has contributed to the legislature having such a mixed bag when it comes to legislators, so much so that voters perhaps feel revolted by the conduct of their own representatives?

A: I don't think it is fair to blame the constitution which created the PR system. No constitution can be perfect. However, I must add that there is a method in this constitution.

And those who contest under this constitution have primarily agreed to abide by the constitutional provisions. Conversely, the party is the basic unit of political power under this constitution and that is also why we have the anti defection law. Again, it is tied to the electoral system which is proportional representation.

This means, people primarily vote for the party. It is based on that, the preferences are cast. Based on the same reason only defectors lose their seats. It is the natural fate of a defector.

Of course, there is much to be said about the conscience vote. But that happens in countries where the first past the post system operates. There, people vote for the candidate and not the party. It is altogether a different situation.

If you come under these rules, it is essential that you adhere to them. Not try to leave when it suits your convenience, which is what we often witness today.

Q: Now that you end 18 years of service at the legislature as its chief administrator, do you have any regrets as the outgoing Secretary General of Parliament?

A: I have had many ups and downs - more downs than ups. No, the membership of the house was good to me throughout. I have had my disagreements with a large number of members but they don't bear any malice. I think, deep down, they are gentlemen.

But I can't say the same thing for the staff. Some members of the staff have been extremely vicious. They seem to consider that indiscipline is a fundamental right. And I suppose this is inherent in the rest of the public service too.

I think we as public servants are also responsible for the pathetic state in which we find our country in. If we act in a disciplined manner and make a concerted contribution, whatever the institution we are working for without asking for privileges and higher wages, things would have improved. Today, those appear to be the only concerns of public servants.  And flouting the rules is considered an achievement. They sometimes come late and cheat the attendance register and feel good about it. What good is there when you cheat the institution that feeds and clothes you?

I think we can't simply blame the politicians alone. The entire public service has the same pathetic mentality.

Very few people today would do something without being paid for it. They won't work half an hour more for the betterment of the country or the institution. The exceptions are there. Some of parliament's employees have been outstanding. They work with a lot of dedication.

While I have no regrets about my career as a parliament official, I believe my life is full of controversies. Just last week, I attended the Bangladeshi National Day celebrations. There were a lot of people who spoke to me there. They told me that there was a controversy when I was appointed and now that I am retiring, I am still plagued by a controversy. So controversies appear to be linked to my career experience.

Q: We spoke about the decline in discipline. A closely linked issue is the poor debating quality. Why is this? Is it due to the PR system bringing in a wide variety of people with different educational backgrounds?

A: There are high quality debaters even now. I think it is not related to the level of education. Take the late W. Dahanayake. He may not have had a fancy education but his contribution to the legislature was tremendous.

I think the difference lies in the fact that today, the MP's outlook is different. May be they no longer consider it important?

They are not that keen on the parliamentary process. Few read up, refer books and Hansards or do any homework. Very many people feel that debating in parliament is a waste of time because the government can have its way due to having a majority. That's absolutely the wrong approach. It's not about passing bills it is about expressing opinions. It is essential to have all viewpoints expressed and only then do we have a functioning democracy.

Q: You mentioned that actually only a few are interested in the parliament process. Is it possible that some of them don't even know what the process is?

A: They don't bother to understand what they are debating about. As a reporter, you would have noticed that when questions are raised, hardly any minister is available to answer questions. It always becomes incumbent upon the chief government whip to answer all of them.

The idea of having questions listed is to prompt a minister to answer some dicey supplementary questions. In reality, the listed question is only a springboard to asking potentially damaging supplementary questions.

 If it is not the minister in charge of the subject, there is no chance of a whip answering the supplementaries. Perhaps that's the idea behind the absence in certain instances so that the debate does not build up on an answer given.

I have noticed that in other parliaments, the minister is thoroughly prepared when he comes to answer. It is a challenge. By then he knows background. He does not merely read from a document given by an official either.

I have personal experience in this regard. When I was at the Justice Ministry, I used to help the late A .C. S. Hameed with replies. He used to ask me for the background. Before coming to parliament, he ensured that he had a sound knowledge about the topic at hand. You find today ministers simply reading prepared answers and failing to respond to any supplementary questions.

Q: Is it possible for a member to completely read out from a text?

A: It is not prohibited. But that is also not the done thing. That is not what is meant by debating. A really skilled debater would not do that. He/she might bring notes and refer to them occasionally. But a person with a real understanding will not read from a paper but speak from the heart.

Q: Now that you have ended your service, there is speculation that you are likely to return to parliament as a consultant. Is this true?

A: There has been some speculation, but I have not had any offer yet. I would love to serve the institution even without any form of payment. As a retired person, I will have more time at my command. I have already told the Speaker that if he ever needs my assistance that he could find me at the other end of the telephone line.

It was a pleasure working for him, and his predecessors, the late Anura Bandaranaike and Joseph Michael Perera. They all have been very gracious gentlemen.

Q: What would you consider the most challenging task for a future secretary general?

A: It will prove very challenging. And it should be so, for such is the ways with a legislature.

With all these discussions on constitutional reform, it will be more arduous than it was for me. And I wish him well in grappling with the future problems.

Likewise, parliament reporting is also becoming more and more challenging. I believe the lobby correspondents must also undergo some measure of training for it is a specialised area. This category of journalists are the communicators of what transpires in parliament and hence, play a crucial role. They should report news and not sensationalism. There is a high responsibility riding on their shoulders.

The lobby correspondents are essentially a part of the legislature. If the media does not report, then parliament might as well not exist. It is this special category of journalists who take the message to the public. So their role as messenger is crucially important to parliament.

Hence their training, their understanding of the rules of procedure is significant to the legislature. I hope the next secretary general would be able to launch some form of training for lobby correspondents which I consider vital.

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