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 Spotlight  

The prorogation option and politics of expediency


Wijedasa Rajapakse, Rauf Hakeem 
and Mahinda Rajapakse

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

With the prorogation of parliament imminent, there is no doubt that such an exercise would prove an efficient time buying mechanism to a government that appears to be surviving from day to day, and effectively push some important matters into hibernation.

Highly placed government sources claim that President Mahinda Rajapakse is poised to exercise powers conferred upon him by Article 70 of the Constitution post January 8, and to prorogue parliament for a period of one month.

In effect, all the parliamentary committees, pending bills, dilatory and adjournment motions, questions for oral and written answers and public petitions would lapse immediately. They will require reprocessing which will practically take several months to move from Order Book to Order Paper status.

Collective sigh of relief

Such a decision by the President will make not just the troubled Head of State but also several key government members heave a collective sigh of relief.

Importantly, with the lapse of select committees and watch dog committees such as COPE and PAC, no confidence motions against Ministers Keheliya Rambukwella and Milinda Moragoda, and censure motions on Mahinda Rathnatilake and UNP's Lakshman Seneviratne would also lapse.

This will also cater to the JVP that had been clamouring for the abandoning of the APRC exercise which is aimed at reaching southern consensus through producing viable proposals to end ethnic strife. The committee's performance has been debilitated not just due to the unrepentant opposition by the JVP but also due to the government's lack of reciprocity and reluctance to identify with the APRC's recommendations.

APRC would lapse

In such an event, a prorogation will be a blessing in disguise to the government. It will cause the APRC to naturally lapse, and would require to be reconstituted. While this might not be the ideal course of action for a government that still only pays lip service to power devolution to at least muster some international support, it would also warm the JVP towards the government having thrown the only available lifeline to the UPFA administration on December 14 when it was on the throes of having its third budget defeated. That would spell good for the government's survival for the coming months, though it requires the sacrificing of its singular power sharing effort.

In effect, the prorogation would nullify much of the hard work put in by parliamentarians serving on various committees as well as parliamentary officials. With that, the government perhaps hopes to enjoy a temporary lull without significant political embarrassment at least at the legislature.

Further, a prorogation will bring in some other political benefits. Post prorogation, each and every committee, be they select, special, consultative or general, have to be reconstituted and then gazetted. 

Whims and fancies

This also means, an opportunity to reconstitute committees according to whims. A government legislator serving on one of the watchdog committees commented that it would be ideal to 'break the backbone' of both COPE and PAC. "They can appoint as chairmen, members who would toe the government's line. In any case, it is only a matter of time," he said.

There is already a belief that backbencher and powerful presidential sibling, Basil Rajapakse will head at least one of the two watchdog committees, with or without a prorogation.

However, there is a dilemma unaddressed. The government is already a minority government and the valid question would be whether such a government would have the right to reconstitute the many committees and especially to appoint government members as their chairmen.

However, both SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem and Wijedasa Rajapakshe do not suffer from any delusions about being re-appointed as PAC and COPE heads. Both parliamentarians are seen as politicians who embarrassed the present administration, more so Rajapakshe who has repeatedly demanded concrete action be taken on the COPE report and the failure to take sufficient action led him to sit in opposition.

But committees are only part of the problem. When reconstituted and gazetted, the problems end there.

The bigger issue concerns the lapsing of bills, motions, petitions and questions that need to be represented to acquire efficacy and to be included in the Order Book.

According to sources from the Bills Department in parliament, most of the bills included in the Order Book have only reached the first and second reading stages. If a prorogation occurs, all of them will have to be re-processed.

"More than causing a delay, a prorogation causes a lot of paper work. As a legal formality following prorogation, each bill needs to be presented once again and the process restarted," an officer from the department explained.

The last time the House was prorogued, the practical factor was that the prorogation caused the lapsing of only a handful of bills. Conversely, if there were many bills that merely required the formalities to conclude, the result would have been the creation of a massive backlog of bills for clearing. It also would have meant the government lacking business to process.

Not gazetted

According to parliamentary sources, many bills though given notice of, have not yet been gazetted. "They are incomplete and cannot be considered fully fledged bills," the source explained. However, there are some 20 other draft bills that are pending their first presentation.

According to a top parliamentary official, it is not just about lapsing committees and bills. It is mostly a question of bills, motions and even questions losing priority. "That is an issue. Legislators are naturally unhappy when motions have to be reprocessed and especially if they were of considered priority and matters that should take precedence," the official explained.

This means, having to give notice of many legislative matters already given due notice of.

According to parliamentary authorities, notice of questions and motions too have to be given notice of according to Section 23 of the Standing Orders of parliament.

Accordingly, after due notice is given they can be permitted to be included in the Order Book out of which items are selected according to priority to be included in the Order Paper, the agenda for each sitting day.

Amidst all this, authorities also state that the PAC report was pending for a full day's debate as there was no agreement on a date yet. "A prorogation would certainly push the PAC report to the dustbin, at least for some time," said PAC member, Wasantha Samarasinghe.

The report presented to parliament on November 29 (Thursday) by PAC Chairman, Rauf Hakeem was a damning indictment on several institutions and their heads for breaching the country's financial regulations and for unrepentant corruption. The report, just like the COPE report did, has not minced words in laying blame where necessary.

Parliamentary traditions

If the President does prorogue parliament after passing emergency on January 8, besides the administrative work that would increase in parliament in re-processing many a bill, motion and query, more focus would be on how the parliamentary committees would be reconstituted. And more so, who would be selected to head the watchdog committees. In 2002, the UNP, in pursuance of the highest parliamentary traditions, appointed two opposition legislators as COPE and PAC chairmen. It is an example best emulated by others. Only if politics of expediency does not take precedence.

Many files missing - Jayasekara

UNP legislator and PAC member, Dayasiri Jayasekara said that one important step in the right direction would be to send the Inland Revenue chief on compulsory leave pending inquiry.

"Following the arrest of two other officers, Ambepitiya and Jayathilake, Inland Revenue Chief, A. A. Wijepala was quick to take some protective action and sought an order from the Treasury Secretary to put an end to criminal investigations. Now it is learnt that many of the vital files on the VAT scam are missing," said Jayasekara.

Jayasekara alleged that although Ambepitiya and Jayathilake were in custody, both were still being paid their full salary on a directive by Wijepala. "In a country where the law is strictly enforced on innocent and vulnerable people, the very opposite applies to the high and mighty. If a peon robs a mere Rs.50 he will be removed immediately and until the investigaions clear him, he will be deprived of all  dues. But these two get special treatment," he said, adding that public faith would be severely eroded if the credibility of both COPE and PAC are not protected by the government. 

 Investigations impeded - Premachandran

Senior TNA legislator, Suresh Premachandran said that it would be unfortunate to have a prorogation which may pave the way for debilitating both the PAC and COPE.

"Of course it is premature and hypothetical to consider this. But given the cavalier attitude of the government towards the reports submitted to parliament by both committees, anything is possible," he said.

Referring to the PAC, he said that as a result of retaining the same person as the head of the Department of Inland Revenue that impedes investigations, the government would also become suspect, as it appears that the administration was keen to retain the person whose name has got tarnished by the VAT scam.

Prorogation procedure

Under Article 70 of the 1978 Constitution, the president may, from time to time, by proclamation, summon, prorogue and dissolve parliament.

Under Article 70 (3), a proclamation proroguing parliament should fix a date for the next session, not being more than two months after the date of the proclamation.

However, while parliament stands prorogued, the president may by proclamation, do two things.

Firstly, he could summon parliament on an earlier date than what is declared in the proclamation, but not less than three days from the mentioned date.

Secondly, the president can, subject to the provisions of this article, dissolve parliament.

Article 70 (4) states that all matters which, having been duly brought before parliament, have not been disposed of at the time of the prorogation of parliament, may be proceeded with during the next session.

PAC and Standing Orders

Constituted under Standing Order 125 of Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is a 12-member committee. A Committee of Selection nominates the members.

According to the parliamentary rules, the PAC's duty is to examine the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by parliament to meet public expenditure and such other accounts laid before the House as the committee considers fit, along with the reports of the Auditor General. 

Likewise, the committee was expected to report to parliament from time to time on the accounts examined, the finances, procedures, performance and management generally of a department, local authority and on any matter arising therefrom.

The committee may appoint sub committees when it considers such action necessary consisting of its own members to examine and report on all accounts and the finances and management of such departments, local authorities as the committee may direct.

The committee or any of its sub committees shall for the performance of its duties have the power to summon any person and call for and examine any paper, book, record or other document and to have access to stores and property.

COPE and Standing Orders

According to Section 126 of Standing Orders, the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) will consist of 12 members nominated by the Committee of Selection. Its quorum is four members.

The committee will examine the accounts of public corporations and of any business or other undertaking vested under any written law in the government laid before parliament, along with the reports of the Auditor General.

COPE from time to time reports to parliament on the accounts examined, the budgets and annual estimates, the finances, financial procedures, performance and management generally of any public corporation or of any business or other undertaking vested under written law in the government and on any other manner arising therefrom.

COPE can appoint sub committees of its own members to examine and report on all accounts, budgets and annual estimates, the finances and management of such public corporations or of any business or other undertaking vested under any written law in the government as the committee may direct.

COPE or any of this sub committee shall for the performance of its duties have the power to summon before it and question any person and call for and examine any paper, book, record or any other document and to have access to stores and property. 

Open both committees to media - Hakeem

According to PAC Chairman, Rauf Hakeem, it is too early to predict anything. His only wish is for the PAC report to be duly debated and concrete action taken on the findings.

He also said that as stated in parliament, he also hoped that both the PAC and COPE sessions would be opened to the media. 

Commence investigations - Wijedasa

Current Chairman of COPE, Wijedasa Rajapakshe said that there was an obvious lethargy in taking concrete action on the COPE report and called upon the law enforcement authorities to promptly conduct inquiries and commit those who have violated the country's laws to immediate trial.

"Only that will put some discipline into corrupt politicians and officials. Public property and finance are sacred and those who abuse should be penalised," he said.

All involved should be sent on compulsory leave - Samarasinghe

Irrespective of a possible dissolution, the government should act according to the recommendation of both the COPE and PAC reports and take stringent action against wrongdoers, says JVP legislator Wasantha Samarsinghe.

 He said that both reports have demonstrated parliament's commitment to infuse financial discipline and suggested ways and means of doing that. Any failure would create more room for corruption and would prove an indirect incentive to people who have abused their positions, he said. 


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