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There has been in recent weeks a revival of interest in the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, as part of a broader on-going debate triggered by the publication of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) about future constitutional reforms addressing the need for devolution and democratisation. As implicitly acknowledged by the LLRC, the salutary need for a new post-war constitution, or substantial reforms to the existing one, is a matter of pivotal importance in moving Sri Lanka from its ‘post-war present’ to a truly ‘post-conflict future.’ These fundamental reforms, however, will involve sustained negotiations among all stakeholders about details of process and substance, and are distinct from the set of issues with regard to how the implementation of the existing framework of devolution in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment might be undertaken.
Without in any way foreclosing the need for more substantial reforms, the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which all Tamil political parties from the EPDP to the TNA have demanded, can be seen as an important confidence-building measure. If undertaken with a sense of purpose and goodwill, it can demonstrate that the government is serious about addressing minority grievances, help consolidate an inclusive process towards agreeing further reforms, foster a culture of compromise and accommodation, encourage Sri Lanka’s friends abroad that there is hope for reconciliation and peace on a more durable constitutional footing, and provide at least some answers to its critics.
The critical point about all this is that the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, as a starting point, is one of the few things on which both the TNA and the government can agree on without compromising either party’s core interests, and without pre-determining the possibilities of a future constitutional reform process. That is, it allows the government to maintain its position on the unitary state, while it also allows the TNA the space to negotiate for greater autonomy than what is provided under the Thirteenth Amendment. The exercise of full implementation, undertaken in tandem with government-TNA talks, or in deliberations in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee, or in some other form, can strengthen one another and improve the chances of a successful agreement. Full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment can also possible be the springboard on which a potentially more broadly-based, inclusive and participatory process for future constitutional negotiations (and governance in the interim) can be constructed, with the involvement of other parties represented in all eight functional Provincial Councils, together with local government authorities, central institutions such as Parliament, and civil society.
Thus it would seem that full implementation makes imminent good sense, but it is the government’s ambivalence and prevarication that has given cause for scepticism, and strengthened the voice of its critics, especially in the Tamil diaspora. For this the government has no one to blame but itself, but it is still wholly possible if it so wishes, for the government to approach this with more sense than it has so far showed.
There were several implications of the government’s statement in 2008 that it was committed to the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Firstly, it was acknowledging the well-known fact that successive governments have not done so, and the announcement was welcome to the extent that, at least two decades after their introduction, these constitutional provisions were to be implemented and given effect in their entirety. In this of course the government was not expressing a policy choice but acknowledging the most basic of its legal duties to uphold and implement the supreme law of the land.
Secondly, when this commitment was originally articulated, it was in the nature of an interim measure – so as to implement the extent of devolution already provided in the Constitution in the North and East in particular – in anticipation of constitutional reform proposals by the APRC, and in the wider context of a new, post-war constitutional settlement for power-sharing. Since then, however, less and less has been heard from the government about the commitment to full implementation. Beyond the election and constitution of the Eastern Province (a process also expected in the Northern Province in the future), and where the experience of devolved governance has been less than ideal, no tangible changes signifying the necessary political commitment to realising devolution have been forthcoming.
Instead, not only has the central government taken a dominant role in the economic and development activities within the Eastern Province, supplanting the elected Provincial Council, but senior officials including the President have in comments made to the media subsequently averred that the government is in fact not intending to concede all of the devolved powers, in particular those over police and law and order, and state land. On the other hand, there has been no official or unequivocal withdrawal of the full implementation policy either. The governing paradigm of post-war reconstruction and development appears to be premised on the notion that only the central government can effectively deliver, and there is insufficient regard to the fact that devolution and development are not mutually exclusive concepts. In the light of these issues, there is a question mark as to what the government’s policy with regard to devolution actually is.
However, for the reasons outlined at the outset, it is to be hoped that a more enlightened policy direction will be taken, and if the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment is to be undertaken, the issues discussed in what follows would require to be addressed with a view to realising the fullest extent of devolution within its parameters.
In addition to the matters highlighted below, a more comprehensive review of the experience of devolution, akin to that undertaken by the Asoka Gunawardane Committee in 1996 is urgently needed. It should also be remembered that almost all of the issues identified by that Committee remain relevant, and much of its recommendations have not been implemented. A prospective review body therefore must be given a wide mandate to recommend necessary changes including the statutory framework of devolution, as well more generally central legislation impacting on devolution, the body of administrative rules and practices governing the operation of public administration at central, provincial and local levels, and the financial rules and procedures. In other words, a ‘comprehensive devolution audit’ must be undertaken with regard to all existing law, policy and practice, and recommendations made for amending, repealing and replacing anything that is inconsistent with the maximum level of devolution permissible under the Constitution. Needless to say, the sustained commitment of the government to introducing these wide-ranging changes is imperative. As it was observed at the outset, changes of this nature would be wholly consistent with the mandate of the President and the UPFA in terms of the Mahinda Chintana Idiri Dekma, as they do not impinge on the unitary structure of the state.
What are the structural changes that are required?
For maximising the extent of devolution within the parameters of the Thirteenth Amendment, changes need to be made to the statutory structure set out in the Provincial Councils Act, as amended (and consequential amendments to other central legislation).
Substantively, the main issue with regard to the Provincial Councils Act is the centrality that it accords to the Governor in the day-to-day administration of the Province. The main focus of change in this regard must be to establish a more even balance between the Governor, and the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers. It is recognised that the constitutional framework requires that certain functions are performed by the Governor, and which therefore cannot be taken away by ordinary legislation. However, there is no reason why, in relation to many other functions, a more appropriate balance cannot be struck by either removing the functions of the Governor altogether, or by making the exercise of his powers expressly subject to the advice of the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers. Amendments to the Provincial Councils Act require the following changes.
Many of the functions of the Governor and the President in Part of II of the Provincial Councils Act dealing with meetings and conduct of business of the Provincial Council including those of a symbolic nature are unnecessary, except those that are required for purposes of legal rights and liabilities of the provincial administration through the Provincial Council. The provision requiring the President’s approval for rules of procedure of the Provincial Council regarding financial matters and for prohibiting discussion on the conduct of the Governor in matters in which he acts in his own discretion is unnecessary and may be removed. There is no justification for prohibiting discussion of the Governor in the Provincial Council. There is also no reason why the Governor should make rules allocating business among the Ministers. This may be done by the Board of Ministers in consultation with the Chairman of the Provincial Council, and subject to the approval of the Provincial Council.
The powers and functions of the Governor in regard to provincial finance under Part III of the Provincial Councils Act are some of the main impediments to devolution and to the promotion of greater financial responsibility and accountability at the provincial level. These powers and functions must be transferred to the Chief Minister, who may be regarded ex officio as the Finance Minister of the Province. However, the present rule-making powers of the Governor with regard to the Provincial Fund and the Emergency Fund need not be conferred on the Chief Minister, but require to be embodied in provincial statutes (i.e., a ‘provincial financial procedure statute’). To the extent any oversight by the Governor is necessary, this is afforded by the requirement of assent by the Governor to the annual Appropriations Statute (and other ad hoc supply statutes such as supplementary grants and votes on account).
The functions and powers of the Governor in relation to the provincial public service and Provincial Public Service Commission under Part IV of the Provincial Councils Act are indefensible from a good governance as much as a devolution point of view. The concern about politicisation that seems to be part of the rationale for vesting control of the provincial public service in the Governor is misplaced in that the Governor’s impartiality cannot be guaranteed, and serves to undermine the authority and autonomy of provincial Ministers in circumstances where the Governor chooses to interfere in provincial Ministries by using his powers over public officers. Accordingly, the Governor’s powers and exclusive discretions under Part IV of the Provincial Councils Act should be removed, and those functions should be vested in the Provincial Public Service Commission, the Chief Secretary and Board of Ministers as the case may be.
Moreover, in addition to the overhaul of rules, practices, procedures and structures in relation to public administration and public finance (the details of which should to be recommended by a suitable body appointed for that purpose), a matter of specific importance that must be highlighted here is the sub-provincial level administrative structures that currently operate as direct agents of the central government. In line with the recommendations of the Asoka Gunawardane Committee, Divisional Secretaries and Grama Niladharis must be brought under the provincial public service.
What are the possible modalities of change?
Reform of the substance of the statutory powers relating to especially finance and the provincial public service in the directions suggested here would enhance the autonomy of the elected provincial executive substantially.
There are three possible modalities of introducing these changes to the underlying statutory regime of the Thirteenth Amendment. The first is by way of piecemeal amendments to the Provincial Councils Act (and other central legislation). This would address the most serious issues requiring attention, but would not disturb the established framework too much. Secondly, the Provincial Councils Act could be repealed and replaced with a new Act, which sets out a fresh approach and also may consolidate consequential amendments to other central legislation required by a new beginning. Thirdly, the most radical option is to repeal the Provincial Councils Act, and replace it with nine different Acts, negotiated between the central government and each Provincial Council according to the needs and preferences of each Province, and setting out, within the outer limits determined by the parameters of the Thirteenth Amendment, a greater or lesser degree of devolution depending on the democratic desire of each Province.
A further innovation that is possible (indeed this applies to the first and second options as well) is that any centre-provincial autonomy agreement embodied in central legislation be made susceptible to periodic review (for e.g., every ten years). The great attraction of this approach is that it has both symbolic and substantive importance in placing the relationship between the central government and each Province at a constitutional, and as close to a notion of equal partnership, as is possible within the ultimate hierarchy necessarily dictated by the unitary state. It may be that eventually, all Provinces end up demanding exactly the same or maximum level of powers, but the symbolism of the approach remains.
Addressing the political and administrative culture of devolved governance
As has been repeatedly affirmed, one of the enduring barriers to the meaningful realisation of devolution are not so much formal structures and the text of legal or constitutional provisions, as the attitudes and dispositions of the people who implement them, especially elected political representatives and public servants. As long as there is no interest or incentive to change these attitudes, very little can be proposed by way of institutional or procedural changes that have any chance of success. Even the most acutely designed system can be denuded by apathy, hostility or incapacity, and at least part of the experience under the Thirteenth Amendment testifies to that. Dependent on leadership and commitment to change, however, the following measures are worthy of consideration.
One of the most striking features of the experience of devolution in Sri Lanka in comparison to any other system of multi-level government elsewhere, is the near total absence of co-ordination mechanisms (also known as inter-governmental relations). No devolved system can work without such supporting mechanisms, which range from political bodies for the making and co-ordination of policy, to bodies that co-ordinate public administration, to highly specialised, technical bodies that support specific aspects of governance. A future review body needs to address the specific requirements in this area. The Asoka Gunawardane Committee made several recommendations on this which continue to have relevance.
Flowing from the absence of co-ordination and consultation mechanisms between multiple levels of government, is the absence of political and administrative arrangements and agreements, which may be informal or quasi-legal in nature, that form the basis of co-operation between these levels. It is neither possible nor desirable that every detail of the functional modalities of a multi-level system should be rigidly enshrined in legal instruments, and these arrangements provide the required structure and discipline to inter-governmental relations, at the same time as remaining sufficiently flexible and amendable in response to changing exigencies of government. While this is not the place to suggest in any specific way what these future agreements should be, it is nevertheless possible to identify broad themes on which such agreements are desirable.
A general ‘concordat on executive power’ between the central government and the provincial administrations seems advantageous for a number of reasons. First among these is that such a concordat can articulate broad principles in the exercise of governmental power as between multiple levels of government. These principles reflect political, not legal undertakings. Broadly such a concordat should seek to regularise and ensure mutual respect for constitutionally assigned spheres of activity by ensuring adherence to such principles as devolution (autonomy of the provincial sphere), co-operation, legality, transparency and democracy.
Within the broad framework of an executive concordat, it is possible to envisage further protocols or agreements between the central government and the provincial level on such matters as the exercise of concurrent legislative powers (for e.g., by the central government choosing not to exercise those powers except where there is a pressing necessity), the exercise of the discretionary powers of the Governor (excluding the transfer of other statutory functions to the Board of Ministers as proposed above), inter-ministerial working arrangements, budgetary procedures and allocations, and substantive policy areas including development, sectoral/industrial matters (for e.g., tourism, fisheries, agriculture, natural resources, etc.).
The experience of Provincial Councils in the past two decades demonstrates that the full constitutional extent of devolution that is possible by an innovative and flexible approach to the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment has not been realised. This is due to straightforward non-implementation of constitutional provisions, or because of attempts at clawing back the constitutional scheme through central legislation or administrative and political practices.
The full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment therefore requires a thoroughgoing review of these laws, policies, and practices. The possibilities and policy options that are available in this exercise have been suggested, albeit in outline, in the preceding discussion. In the final analysis, however, no amount of institutional reform is likely to succeed without the critical element of political will and commitment to making devolution work. That has been the experience in the past, and it remains to be seen whether this will change in the future. If undertaken properly, it provides both a convenient and a principled way out of the looming deadlock that seems to threaten constitutional negotiations in post-war Sri Lanka.
Note: This discussion draws on a more extensive assessment of the Thirteenth Amendment through the experience of the Eastern Provincial Council entitled Devolution in the Eastern Province: Implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and Public Perceptions, 2008-2010, published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in 2010. This publication, available in English, Sinhala and Tamil, can be downloaded here.