Secretary General of Parliament, Priyanee
Wijesekera will end her long and
distinguished career as a top public servant
tomorrow, March 31.
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
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
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.
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
I don't see any drastic change. I only see a
gradual decline in parliament in every
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
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?
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
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?
Conventions should build up on rules, not
contradict the rules.
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
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.
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
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
Q: What was your most trying moment as
Secretary General of Parliament?
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
eventually had a result, though a very close
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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?
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
the difference lies in the fact that today,
the MP's outlook is different. May be they
no longer consider it important?
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
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?
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
It will prove very challenging. And it
should be so, for such is the ways with a
these discussions on constitutional reform,
it will be more arduous than it was for me.
And I wish him well in grappling with the
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.
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
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