Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Deliberative Democracy and the Sri Lankan Parliamentary Committee System

Any State policy affects its citizens. All State policies should be designed to benefit citizens and ideally citizen’s perspectives or representations should be included within the principles of a particular policy. Hence, State policies should be designed by State representatives to ultimately benefit citizens and not themselves. This basic and broad understanding of what policies within a state mechanism should achieve is the ‘norm’ in a relationship between State Policy Design and the political rights of its Citizens. Although this is a ideal and is probably not practiced perfectly anywhere in the world, it is something we would like to believe we can achieve in the 21st Century of political thought. This link between citizen consultation and state policy design is non-negotiable, while the method through which it is done could be negotiable. The real problem lies when the very link between citizens and state policy design is severed. When politicians or state officials start to design policies without consulting the people especially on issues concerning voting rights, economic rights, education or political representation it becomes a betrayal of the franchise. Someone could argue that once you have voted in a particular government, whatever policies they determine during their term could be validated through the franchise they have received and if you disagree with them you could just vote them out in the next election. But what if they design a political system through state policy creation in which they cannot be voted out or the state policies they create are so destructive that the country suffers crisis even before the end of a term. I think it’s important that people have a say in the design of state policy for this reason. It’s not enough for you to just cast your vote and let your leaders design State policy to suit you because they may not represent what exactly you want. Hence, you or at least concerned groups of people should be consulted when politicians or state officials design policy. This would be the basic idea behind the necessity for Deliberative Democracy.

There are a number of scholars who have tried to define Deliberative Democracy academically. Combining the thoughts of political theorists Albert Weale, Joshua Cohen and Jane Mansbridge Deliberative Democracy can be defined as a public political procedure in which a deliberative process involving society provides legislation under which society is governed fairly. In such a procedure the perspectives, needs and interests of different socio economic or political groups may be measured and the principles of a particular policy may be decided upon, based on this measurement. Based on the these thoughts it may be assumed that inside a deliberative process the legitimacy of a particular policy is created through a variety of institutionalized processes which are systematically and politically in a political system. But what would be the best manifestation of Deliberative Democracy in state mechanisms? To answer this question, it must first be understood that there are some fundamental thoughts regarding deliberative democracy. Everyone acknowledges that the vote or ‘franchise’ is the ultimate expression of Democracy. But what happens when the vote is over and how do citizens have a say in how they are ruled in between elections? Any Democratic political system evolves methods through which this can be done. Hence, the popular will of the people becomes enshrined within the institutional and procedural aspects of the State. From this perspective on Democracy and indeed Deliberative Democracy, Committee Systems within Parliament perform vital functions for the constitution of popular sovereignty. Such a system, if implemented in a transparent and open manner would allow citizens to assess what the Executive arm of government is doing in their name. A Parliamentary Committee would examine a particular policy in a deeper and more comprehensive manner thus being more constitutive of democratic subjectivity and will. Hence, parliamentary committees are central to the deliberative dimension of democracy. However, it must be said here that they must conform to the principles of deliberation in their own practice.

It is with these reflections on Deliberative Democracy we must look at our own Parliamentary Committee System. Firstly, according to Former Secretary General of Parliament Priyanee Wijesekara in her book Parliamentary Practice in Sri Lanka while a major part of the work of any legislature is done through committees the Sri Lankan Constitution itself does not provide for committees. In fact committees have been established under the Standing Orders and are a result of evolution and not Constitutional design. The general rules applicable to committees can be found in Standing Orders 130 to 130A. The ‘Official’ committee stage of Parliament comes into effect after the Second Reading of a Bill in Parliament. In the Second Reading Members express their views on a particular subject. It encompasses wide ranging discussions on the scope and principles of a bill. Wijesekara states that in the Committee Stage, a bill is considered clause by clause and amendments can be introduced. Standing Orders 37 to 40 deal with this procedure. Hence, the Sri Lankan ‘Parliamentary Committee Stage’ itself does not provide room for any major policy changes but rather amendments to a particular policy. Furthermore, there are two major ‘Committee Tools’ that can be utilized during the when a bill is passing into law through the parliamentary process in Sri Lanka; the Committee of the Whole House and Standing Committees. A Committee of the Whole House is comprises all members of Parliament and can take place while parliament proceedings go on while a Standing Committee can examine a bill clause by clause and report back to Parliament later. A Standing Committee is also a smaller groups of MP’s to whom petitioners or other interested parties may make representations too under Standing Order 49. In relation to both these Committees Wijesekara states that the procedure in a Standing Committee enables more close scrutiny of Bills whereas the Committee of the Whole House enables a speedier disposal of bills. Therefore, in the eyes of Deliberative Democracy Standing Committees would be a good system of public consultation in relation to amending bills. However, the Standing Committee system does have some drawbacks in relation to truly representing a Deliberative Democratic process in Sri Lanka. Firstly, while Standing Committees provide for a wider consultation from interest groups and experts the impact of these inputs would be limited because the Standing Committee is only allowed to edit the technical details of the bill rather than its principles. Secondly, the composition of the Standing Committee would be such that the Government would always have more representation in a Standing Committee and hence be able to override any views in contravention with the Government’s own policy line. Hence, it would important to re examine the Standing Committee system from the standpoint of Deliberative Democracy in the near future. In addition to the Standing Committee System the second most important aspect of the Sri Lankan Committee system in relation to Deliberative Democracy are the Consultative Committees.

There is a Consultative Committees for each separate Ministry of the Cabinet of Ministers and their main function is to keep the work of each ministry under review. Consultative Committees reflect the party composition in Parliament and hence may run the same risk of being partisan to the government during its function. However, the nature of the Consultative Committee is such that they become a convenient forum for MP’s to probe the working and functioning of Government Departments by questioning officials. This allows efficiency and focus for peoples representatives to question the functioning of a particular institution of the State. According to Wijesekara the Consultative Committee System would be the most effective method by which Parliament could scrutinize the activities of the Executive branch of the State. In a way it is an evolutionary step for Deliberative Democracy in Sri Lanka which goes beyond peoples’ participation in policy design and evolves into a method through which the representatives of the people can keep a check on how State Services and Policy is implemented at the institutional level. Other than promoting a Deliberative Democratic Process there are many advantages of utilizing the committee system for parliamentary work. A Committee is smaller and therefore easier to administer. Committees can meet on any day at the convenience of its members and they are not required to follow the hours mentioned in the Standing Orders thus giving Committees a degree of ‘qualitative flexibility’.  Committees also leave room for MP’s to function in their personal capacities thus reducing the chances of towing a party line and increasing the possibilities of working on consensus. A Committee can summon experts and other relevant witnesses to aid a more qualitative policy amendment process. Many different committees could function at once while discussing different issues at the same time and not be limited to one matter as practiced in the general assembly.

In all the complexities of these details one thing is clear in relation to Deliberative Democracy and the Sri Lankan Committee System. There must be a political will to consult a wider range of opinion in the policy design, amendment and implementation process in Sri Lanka. The political attitude of the day is to rush through legislation and get things done quicker and faster. This will only be successful if a Government and State have vast resources and advanced technical knowledge on specific policy areas. If this capacity does not exist it is necessary for the government to get the help of independent experts and consult different opinions on a particular issue. What’s important here is ownership and consultation. The basic premise of Deliberative Democracy is that it allows consultation and inclusivity thus giving legitimacy to a policy process. Hence, in the design of State Policy more people will have a stake so that if it does fail or succeed there will be more people to take the blame or revel in success.