Anuradhapura, Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Eroding Governance

The LTTE attack on the Saliyapura airforce base has reminded those who wanted to think otherwise, that a quick, cheap and/or certain military victory is by no means assured. The attempt to achieve one will take time and cost quite a lot more in human and other resources. In the meantime, the preoccupation with military victory is also underpinning the steady erosion of democracy. Take the last week for instance.

The Wamanan case and the shutting down of the ABC network constituted further assaults on media freedom. The former is an example of crude and shoddy intimidation in response to the exposure of corruption and the latter, one of over reaction prompted by embedded hostility towards media freedom. On another fornt, the provisions of the Draft Appropriations Bill strike at the very foundation of parliamentary democracy – parliamentary sovereignty over finances. The whole procedure for supplementary estimates could be undermined by a proposed statutory provision allowing the secretary to the treasury to spend additional funds deemed to have been approved by parliament, even though no such process will have been availed of.

The reported exchanges between Minister Hakeem and the president over the Public Accounts Committee and the Inland Revenue chief’s alleged involvement in the VAT scam further compound concerns regarding governance. This is reminiscent of what was reported earlier in COPE with regard to the accounts of the Mahaweli Ministry. Furthermore, the appointment of cabinet ministers to head parliamentary committees on dealings with the LTTE and the MIG 27 deal, indicate that hallowed traditions and conventions of parliamentary democracy whereby committees of this nature are headed by the opposition, are being blatantly disregarded. The prevailing orthodoxy seems to be that there is a war going on and all that matters is its prosecution without the encumbrance of considerations of democratic governance.

As in the case of the Seventeenth Amendment, what is especially worrying here is that it is only a handful of civil society actors who are concerned. Tragically, the vast majority of the people’ s representatives in parliament are either blissfully unaware of this and its implications and/or simply do not care. When it came to PTOMS or the ISGA, shrill defences of parliamentary sovereignty over finances rent the air. Corruption, mismanagement and executive convenience it seems, are different matters all together. We will fight this war by hook or by crook, it seems, and in the process we will destroy lives, livelihoods and the fundamentals of democratic governance. Will the legislature take itself seriously and act in its own defence, before serious damage to democratic governance is institutionalized ? Or is it the case that too many legislators are obsessed with perks and positions and pensions above all else ?

Parliamentary sovereignty over finances is a pillar of parliamentary democracy. Developed through the ages and forged through celebrated historic struggles as far back as the Magna Carta and centuries later, the Boston Tea Party, it constitutes a basic and fundamental check on the executive by the legislature and is an essential component of the notion of the separation of powers as propounded by Montesquieu. Oversight and control over the peoples’ money is entrusted to their elected representatives; it is not to be spent arbitrarily by the executive sans accountability of any sort. Were the proposed provisions to pass into law, blanket powers will be granted to the executive to spend at will and mismanage with impunity. It is not inconceivable that the major proportion of government expenditure could be of this nature into the future.

A corollary of this vital parliamentary function is a strong and vibrant committee system, both fearless and diligent in the performance of its duties. Strengthening, reform and revitalization of this system is absolutely necessary if corruption and mismanagement are to be addressed in earnest. Modern parliaments are characterized by the dynamism and vitality of their committees. There is no reason as to why we should be an exception after so many decades of ostensible parliamentary democracy.

In our current context, as far as public finances are concerned, we have been fortunate to have had an Auditor General Mr Mayadunne and Chairperson of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Mr Wijedasa Rajapakse, who have embodied the sprit of public scrutiny and accountability as well as legislative oversight. Interestingly, Mr Rajapakse is not an opposition MP and his chairpersonship of COPE is a departure from the tradition referred to above. It is worth noting though that Mr Rajapakse is one of literally a handful of government legislators who does not enjoy a ministerial portfolio of any sort and in this respect, may be said to be located outside the charmed circle of the current regime. There are great expectations in respect of the forthcoming report of the Public Accounts Committee from the perspective of parliamentary democracy and governance.

In the reassertion of parliament’s role in governance the opposition has a pivotal role to play and it is indeed a moot point as to whether this is the case today. The opposition may well be consumed by its desire to defeat the government on the budget and force a general election which it hopes to win. One hopes too that in doing so it will integrate the basic principles of democratic governance and parliamentary democracy into its bid for power, so that whatever the outcome, the fundamentals of governance, its traditions, processes and practices will be restored.