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The 20th Amendment, Right To Information, And Audit Act

By Lionel Guruge

As suggested by the 19th Amendment, on the 3rd of this month, the speaker of Parliament convened Parliament to finalise the members of the Constitutional Council. During this meeting, a few names were nominated for membership into this Council, including 3 representatives from civil society namely Radhika Coomaraswamy, A.W. A. Salam and Dr A.T. Ariyarathne. There seemed to be a certain orientation in the selection of members by the President, the Prime Minister, and the Opposition leader, for whilst the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader selected Wijedasa Rajapakshe and D.M Senevirathne respectively, President Sirisena’s selection is Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka. One might see this as an indication of where alliances lie, for while the President had every opportunity to select one of the many ministers and politicians that supported him during his campaign from all the parties including his own SLFP, his first preference went to a JHU stalwart. Even the minor parties vote went to veteran politician R. Sampanthan, throwing the President’s choice into further question. This is important because the selection of the members for this Constitutional Council will determine the progress gained by the current government in future, for these members will be instrumental in the shaping of the independent commissions.

 

20th Amendment; the next step

On the 27th of May, the topic of debate amongst cabinet members was regarding the 20th Amendment. During this debate, a few important matters were discussed, mainly with regards to the number of MPs in Parliament. However the only decision made owing to the Parliamentarians’ inability to reach a consensus was to allow the final decision on the draft bill to be given over to the President and Prime Minister. It is hoped that at the next cabinet meeting, the draft bill for this amendment will be finalized.

It seemed that the most recent event that unified all Sri Lankans under one common goal didn’t come in the form of a sporting match, but a political milestone. Under the leadership of President Sirisena, various civil society organizations, politicians, and political parties came together to lobby for the passing of the 19th Amendment, and never before had there been as much enthusiasm to achieve a unified political goal. However, this enthusiasm ebbed away since its achievement in Parliament, leaving no vigour to champion for the 20th Amendment. If anyone is in the belief that electoral reform is not as imperative as abolishing the executive presidency, it is a serious oversight; for what the passage of the 20th Amendment will bring is the revision of a severely uncoordinated and unstructured island wide electoral system. Under the prevailing electoral system, money is equated to power, and a candidate in a certain area needs to canvass an entire district for votes. The 20th Amendment can resolve all of this, which is why the SLFP raised its importance in Parliament. However, a few issues were also presented when the bill was being discussed; namely with regards to the cabinet sub-committee. A number of proposals were brought forth for this, including allocating two ballot papers for candidates arising from district levels; one for the candidate and one for the party they represent.

Amidst all these debates, what should indefinitely not pass unnoticed is the delimitation process. A substantial amount of time must be devoted to specifically demarcating electoral precincts, and a discussion and possibly a convention based on this matter are necessary. In this regard it is heartening to witness that certain civil society collectives have taken the initiative to discuss this matter. Perhaps these initiatives will awaken the enthusiasm that the President used to have when advocating for the 19th Amendment, because it doesn’t seem that he is taking due leadership on this matter. In the periphery, the UNP seems to be observing a quiet vigil on the whole matter; their silent policy on matters pertaining to the 20th Amendment so far is discouraging. The minor parties vary in their opinions about this subject. Taking into regard that it is the duty of political parties of a nation to debate and discuss any policy or amendment that is being brought forth, such duties are not apparent with this amendment so far. Civil society collectives, political parties, as well as society in general should be mindful of the fact that political culture will not be entirely reformed by just one act, or in this case amendment, and therefore must continue their advocacy and maintain their enthusiasm for equally important reforms such as the 20th Amendment. The electoral commission also has a great responsibility in this regard. Politicians gave undue prominence to the timeframe of 100 days; what is important is not the timeframe, but how many qualitative changes have been made to reform political culture. It is also important to mention that the role of state media has been severely underplayed in creating an atmosphere most conducive to discuss these matters. The state media has a responsibility in taking this conversation further. Let us hope that the fire has not died entirely and we will see a more revitalised interest in the 20th Amendment soon.

In keeping with the topic of the 20th Amendment, it is puzzling to try and grasp why so much representation is needed by ministers on a national level when Provincial Councils have already been established. Quite simply put, if the devolution of powers to the district and provincial level is done accurately and all the powers enlisted in the Concurrent List is given to the Provincial Councils, there will be no need for such a thing as a Concurrent List and subsequently no need for the Parliament to swell in the number of ministers. District level ministers are best suited to remedy the issues that people face on a district level; similarly, provincial level ministers should be responsible for remedying issues faced on a provincial level. If they were vested with the powers they deserve, there is no need to increase the amount of ministers on a national level. This only leads to unnecessary expenditure and unrealistic goals; why must a small developing nation such as Sri Lanka need more ministers in Parliament than developed nations that have twice or maybe thrice the population? Sri Lanka already has a mechanism by which governance can be coordinated accurately, and that mechanism is presented by Provincial Councils. Therefore it is hoped that the leaders of this nation will think twice about this before filling any more parliamentary seats.

 

Right to Information Bill

The Right to Information bill (or RTI) was a bill that Sri Lanka had waited for a while to come to fruition. To achieve the right of the citizen to receive information on matters that affect their daily lives should be heralded as a great achievement for society. During its inception, the RTI bill was the topic of many a lively discussion, which again has now ebbed away. If one were to scrutinize this bill, they would come to realise one particular issue that even academics and experts in the field have raised concerns over; Article 31 of the draft RTI bill states that the information that can be provided to citizens will not always be for the purpose of dissemination or publication. This is of concern when considering what can be done with the information that is provided to citizens; if it is not explicitly stated what can and cannot be publicised, the consequences will be detrimental to those that do publicise it. Secondly, it is stated that the members of the commission would be selected by the Executive Council, but the President has the power to dismiss the members, which creates a contradiction. More experts and academics must voice their concerns on this matter, and the drafters of this bill must take pains to revise these articles.

There is also a discrepancy with regards to national security as mentioned in the RTI bill. In countries such as India, it is explicitly stated which institutions can and which institutions cannot provide information as it concerns national security. However the same cannot be said about our RTI bill, which can lead to many institutions refusing to provide information on the pretext of preserving national security.

These are issues of contention that many academics have pointed out during the first draft of the RTI bill being presented to public; however in the latest draft, these issues have still not been addressed or revised. The RTI bill does not have any obstacles to be passed in Parliament, but to pass it without addressing these concerns will render the bill futile even before its implementation. At the very least there is not even a hum from the opposition with regards to this bill. The former enthusiasm that came with the introduction of this bill has disappeared. This vain exercise of questioning something and then loosening grip without following through on its progress must come to an end. The government has a duty to follow this through and introduce a reformed final draft of the RTI bill before parliament is dissolved.

 

Audit Act

Another benefit that will occur as a result of the 19th Amendment is the establishment of an Audit Commission in Sri Lanka. This commission will be responsible for all the auditing in the government. However, although there is mention of a draft act, we are yet to see a word of it. Everyone is unaware as to what this act will constitute, who will be selected as members to the audit commission and so forth. At a juncture like this, policy borrowing from other states could be most beneficial; for instance, it would be worthwhile to examine the mechanisms of Audit Committees in other countries and apply it to our own circumstances. If good governance is to be established in any nation, an inspection of the internal mechanisms of its government is an important constituency. Having an Audit Committee is vital; through this many regulations will be applied and it will only serve to strengthen the political structure of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless it will also be added to the list of futile Acts if it is not discussed thoroughly in the public and political sphere. There is again, hardly anything being discussed in the media about this act or the committee. At a time where bribery and corruption are facing harsh penalties, the government must also take measures to prevent it from reoccurring, and in that regard, this act will serve as a crucial piece of legislature.

 

Importance of following through

The NMDRA bill was brought to Parliament as an urgent bill and was passed in the early days of this year, during which time civil society collectives as well as the media and politicians heatedly debated the contents of this bill up until it was passed. However, now that is has been passed, there seems to be a general lack of concern as to its development. Have its regulations been implemented? Have the committee members been competent in following their duties yet? These are questions that have not been uttered since the bill was passed. This trend is common in not just this bill but any other act or amendment that is passed; there will always be a cacophony of debate and discussion from the time a bill is introduced till it reaches Parliament and is passed. Once it is passed, a deafening silence replaces the clamour. The enthusiasm retrenches. In short, we are not accustomed to monitoring progress. It is unsurmountable to recount the amount of times institutions or state actors have succumbed to a murkier side of politics due to this lack of monitoring progress.

Therefore it is imperative to follow through on any act that is passed in Parliament at least on an annual basis. Politicians, civil society, and the media have an equal share of this responsibility. Failing to do so would mean that acts and legislature will be limited to paper and will not fulfil its true duty to the nation and its people.

(lguruge8@gmail.com)

 

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