“I Have A Voice, I Raise It When Required” DEW
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
Q: You are one of the most senior politicians in the country. How do you see the current political situation?
A: There are lots of challenges for the country, but there are opportunities as well. All countries in the Asian region have now become emerging economies. Sri Lanka is a small country with a lot of potential. However, there are areas that need to be addressed. The country depends currently on Western Europe and the US for its export market, but other new markets must be explored. We have a low unemployment rate, but the educated youth unemployment rate stands at around 16-20%. As minister in-charge of human resources I’m now formulating a policy to prepare the country’s workforce to fit the world and local economies. There are lots of reforms that need to be carried out and the policy would be presented to the Cabinet in a few weeks. Another challenge faced by the country is finding a political solution to the ethnic issue. The war is over and the longer we delay finding the political solution, we stand to lose the golden opportunity received after the end of the war.
The political solution cannot be formulated without a consensus between the two major parties in the country – the SLFP and UNP. These two parties need to reach a consensus on the ethnic issue since they have a bigger share in the process. Then the other political parties including the Tamil and Muslim parties have to join the process. There’s also a huge role to be played by the media. I should say that one factor in the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic issue is the lack of a constructive role played by the media. When ever the government comes with a proposal, the media, especially the Sinhala and Tamil media block these moves by taking views based on communalism and chauvinism. The media should help solve the national issue without taking sectarian views. We need to realize that the ethnic issue has been prevalent for the last 50 years out of the 65 years of independence.
The other factor that needs to be looked at is the international front. We need to take account of the global changes and understand that the world order has changed. We need to take into account this fact and continue with our non aligned foreign policy. There might be special preferences when considering alliances based on economic conditions. However, we should not get unnecessarily provoked or over react to situations. We need to maintain good relations with everyone.The country has a lot of opportunities and the people should be given leadership.
Q: To most, the government seems out of control with no accountability or respect to rule of law. Is this the result of the current governance structure, a Presidency without accountability?
A: These issues have been there since the introduction of the 1978 Constitution. This situation has been there under every President since 1978. It has been dramatic sometimes. Also, the country’s economy is fully open, but a very small USD 56 billion economy. In such a scenario necessary safeguards need to be taken. The consumerism in the country is a problem. People’s wants have increased than the necessities. About 62% of the people are in the informal economy sector. However, all concentration is on the formal economic sector when the informal sector is much higher and area faced with many problems. The open, neo liberal economic policies have increased the gap between the rich and poor. These issues need to be addressed. Also, all possible steps need to be taken to ensure the rule of law. The problems faced by the country are due to issues in the Constitution, Executive Presidency and the electoral system.
Q: With massive white elephant projects with borrowed money and huge corruption, the current economic crisis was inevitable. How come a senior minister like you did not see this coming?
A: Corruption is a phenomenon seen around the world. As Chairman of COPE, I’m doing my best to contain the situation. Since I took over as the head of COPE in 2010, the committee has examined all 229 institutions in the public sector. When we started to examine the accounts of these state institutions, it was revealed that most institutions have not submitted audited reports for about 10 years. We immediately took steps to get the audit reports prepared in all state institutions for each year. The Auditor General now says that the accounts for 2010 are almost completed and the accounts for 2011 have been finalized. These institutions did not have accounts earlier. Most often these audit reports were never submitted to Cabinet and when they finally reached COPE years later, and by then the officials who have to be questioned have either retried or transferred. Then there were problems in carrying out investigations. However, now we have managed to clear the backlog and looking at current affairs. The media played a big role in getting the state institutions on track.
The COPE summoned a meeting with all ministry secretaries and informed them that they are responsible as the chief accounting officers. A full day debate was also held in parliament on the latest COPE report. We are now looking at the implementation of the committee’s recommendations. The COPE will re-summon the officials and inquire the progress in implementing the recommendations. The latest COPE report was presented to the Cabinet of Ministers for the first time and a decision was made to implement the recommendations. In this manner we will continue to push for good governance practices. There is action being taken to address corruption, but there’s a lot that needs to be done. We can address the issue through collective action.
Q: Successive governments for many decades have systematically undermined independent institutions and opposition parties. The left has always spoken against this. Why the silence now?
A: Speaking for myself, I always make my views known. Even if I’m in the government I speak. There is no question about being silent.
Q: Does anybody in this government listen to people like you?
A: I speak regardless of whether they listen to me or not. Most people thought that I would be under pressure when I was appointed as the head of COPE. However, that has been proven wrong. The COPE under my chairmanship has exposed all those who are responsible for various shortcomings and irregularities. I have a voice and I raise it when it is required.
Q: You are the Chairman of COPE and has been revealing irregularities in state institutions? But nothing happens. Is this a futile exercise?
A: Action is being taken. Certain cases have been forwarded to the Bribery Commission and some to the CID for further probing and action. The COPE will summon the Commissioner General of the Bribery Commission to inquire the progress made in the cases being investigated and the same would be applied to the CID. There is follow up action in the COPE with regard to irregularities that have been identified.
Q: Does COPE need more teeth like taking administrative actions against wrong doers?
A: COPE is part of the legislature and it cannot be vested with powers to punish. It is up to the executive and the judiciary to take such action. The parliament in a country serves a certain purpose. The COPE makes recommendations and it is up to the executive to take action. The COPE report is unanimous. There are 16 government and 15 opposition politicians in the committee and the final decision is unanimous and there’s no petty politics. It is also the reason for the COPE report to have credibility.
Q: What are the recommendations in the latest COPE report that have been implemented?
A: All recommendations have been implemented. There were 22 recommendations in the latest report and the Cabinet of Ministers decided to implement the recommendations. Some recommendations have to be implemented by the President, some by ministers and ministry secretaries. The COPE since January is re-summoning the relevant officials to question about the implementation of the recommendations and the progress made. The COPE is to submit a report annually on the state institutions to parliament. I have proposed that we submit a half yearly report to focus continued attention on the state enterprises. There would then be an ongoing debate on the functions of the enterprises and it would also serve as a follow up to the COPE recommendations.
Q: There are alleged irregularities in the Public Trustee Department, SriLankan Airlines and the Central Bank. What action has COPE taken?
A: We do not summon any public official based on media reports. We work according to the Constitutional provisions. The COPE works through the Auditor General. The Auditor General works under the parliament. It is the Auditor General who inquires, examines and report to the COPE about the accounts of state enterprises. The COPE then makes necessary inquiries on state enterprises based on the reports.
Q: Will COPE summon the Public Trustee, SriLankan Chairman Nishantha Wickremasinghe and Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal?
A: The Public Trustee is under the purview of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the parliament. However, the COPE from next month will be probing the large state enterprises like SriLankan Airlines and Central Bank. The Central Bank Governor and officials have already been informed to appear before COPE next month. The Governor would have to then come before the COPE. Similarly, SriLankan Airlines Chairman Nishantha Wickremasinghe would also be summoned when COPE begins probing the airline in the next few months.
Q: Finally, would it be correct to say that the left in general and you in particular have failed the people of this country.
A: The problem is that the left is weak. The left suffered a setback all over the world after the collapse of the Socialist movement. However, the left in Sri Lanka has managed to maintain a political base. In 1947 and 1950s the Communist Party and the LSSP had 20 MPs. The JVP managed to bring 39 MPs to parliament although the number has now reduced. The left has therefore had ups and downs. Even the trade union movement in the country is work. Only 10% of the workers are organized. This is a pattern common to many parts of the world. However, we have managed to stand for the people and their rights whether we are in opposition or government. Therefore there is no question about failure.