30th June  2002, Volume 8, Issue 50















A Crisis of Governance

It is now fully six months since the fifty-something ministers of the UNF government began warming their seats. Eight percent of the administration's maximum term of six years is already past: make that fifty percent, if Chandrika Kumaratunga has anything to do with it. For the most part, the ministers have chosen to echo the dictum popularised by Pope Alexander VII: 'God has given us the papacy: let us enjoy it.' They have settled into their seats and begun having their way.

But precious little is happening. Prime Minister and Minister of Policy Development and Implementation, Ranil Wickremesinghe is busy engaging with the government and private sectors in drawing up plans. Six months into the government's term however, these plans are yet to be communicated to line ministries, or even communicated to the ministers whose job it will be to supervise their implementation. Given the Treasury's bankruptcy, there is precious little money with which to implement the plethora of new ideas that keep emerging. And the foreign aid process is so slow that few projects now being developed will see implementation commence before 2004.

The UNF (or at any rate, the UNP) had a full seven years in opposition during which to think about what it would do when it finally came to power. When asked about how he came to acquire his prodigious knowledge of local and global affairs, Wickremesinghe's stock reply is that he had seven years in opposition in which to read. The prime minister is among the best-informed and well-read politicians one is likely to meet in the Asian region. He is also given to making quick decisions in the manner popularised by his advisor, former Finance Secretary R. Paskaralingam. Why then, is there no action?

Part of the reason seems to be Wickremesinghe's 'hands-off' style of government, providing his ministers with absolute freedom, little direction and almost no monitoring. Six months into its term, one would have thought the ministers would have been equipped with the necessary policy framework, a list of manifesto goals and a set of action plans. No such luck: all this is still in the pot, waiting to be dished out.

Sensing a lack of political direction, the bureaucracy has now taken over. The public service, on which Wickremesinghe has chosen heavily to rely, has gone into slumber mode. Visionary thinking has long since been abandoned and ministries are merely ticking over at idle speed. Bold government action is not even dreamt of, and the review process, whereby the prime minister evaluates the performance and progress of the various ministries, is yet to get started. With apologies for the mixed metaphor, the UNF is set to miss the bus hook, line and sinker.

Take the case of the coal-fired power plant. Everyone knows the country needs one, and right quickly, too. The plant has been in the Power and Energy Ministry's planning process for the past 10 years. Soon after the UNF took office, Wickremesinghe made it known that the earlier site planned at Norochcholai would be abandoned; that was the result of the Catholic Church flexing its muscle. (We have discussed in the past the inability of modern-day church leaders to distinguish between God and mammon, and will not labour the point once more.) Given that such a plant has a lead-time of at least five years, one would have thought that an alternative site would have been announced six months ago, at the very outset of the UNF government. After all, two potential sites, at Trincomalee and at Hambantota, had been identified years ago.

It was only last week however, after six months of deep thought that Energy Minister Karu Jayasuriya took up in cabinet his recommendation to site this plant at Trincomalee. The basis of the advice upon which Jayasuriya acted is not known, but whatever it was, we will say here and now that it was mistaken.

Two decades ago, J. R. Jayewardene, replete with a five-sixths majority in parliament and as firm a grip on the ship of state as any leader has had since independence, decided to site a coal-fired power plant at Clappenburg Bay in Trincomalee. The Asian Development Bank was approached to fund it. The resulting outcry from environmentalists however, stopped the all-powerful government in its tracks.

It was well known that while Karu Jayasuriya, egged on no doubt by his secretary K.K.Y.W. Perera, wanted the plant to be based in Trincomalee, Wickremesinghe wanted it in Hambantota, a noncontroversial site. The prime minister however, has been loath to exert his authority on the issue because of Jayasuriya's childish sensitivity and his disposition to personalise any matter on which others disagree with him. It is time Wickremesinghe took charge, setting the government's agenda and precipitating decisive management.

Man shall not live by peace alone. Empty stomachs and a sense of hopelessness will not deliver a contented nation. The prime minister must take charge, identify clear targets and plans for each of the ministries, supervise their implementation and monitor their progress. That does not make for a textbook example of cabinet government. But in a cabinet where only a handful of ministers are doing a meaningful day's work, there is no alternative. Most important of all, the government must be seen to be active, so as to build public confidence in it and in the nation's future.

The nation's patience is fast running out, and Wickremesinghe must take charge right quickly or lasting harm will be done. There is an expectation on the part of the public, as unrealistic as it is justifiable, that the UNF of 2002 would bring about an economic revolution on the lines of the UNP's revolution of 1977. However, the vision, dynamism and leadership of 1977 are totally lacking today. There is a massive crisis of governance. The tragedy is that Wickremesinghe knows full well what must be done: what he must realise now is that unless he rides roughshod over the sensitivities of the obstructionist elements in his party, he and his government will be doomed to failure. And should that happen, the baby of peace will go out with the bathwater of poor governance.

The prime minister has a responsibility that transcends social niceties to the dimmer wits in his cabinet. He must shoulder that responsibility and deliver on his obligations to the nation no matter whose toes are trampled in the process. There simply is no other way. 




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