For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
At the conclusion of less than even a year since the new Parliament was elected by the people, it might be appropriate to reflect on the performance of our lawmakers and assess how worthy they have been as the representatives of the people.
The final report card, alas, is a grim and dismal one. One of the first things the new MPs did was to get themselves duty-free car permits – and then go on to flog them in the open market pocketing the profits.
This newspaper runs a story stating that 65 of the 225 Members of Parliament have obtained for themselves this facility, cutting across the party divide and showing as they always do in these matters, bi-partisanship of a very high degree; the worst part being that they have lost no time in making a buck out of it. It is therefore clear as clear can be that these MPs did not need a vehicle; they already had comfortable transport. The argument is that this is a mere additional perk that is offered to make some extra cash and which allows them to pay back IOUs they may have taken to contest elections, a costly business.
Whichever way you look at it, this is an exercise that is regularising something that is otherwise irregular. Bluntly put, it is cheating — though the practice has come to be accepted as standard in Parliamentary circles. Up until 1977, many MPs travelled in public transport – in buses and with warrants on long-distance trains. And we daresay the quality of Parliamentary debate and legislative enactments was much higher than today.
The entire exercise of the issue of duty free permits is clothed in secrecy, so much so, our news team had to ferret out the information. The Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs was not prepared to divulge the full list so that at least we can name the truly Honorable MPs who have not availed themselves of this facility. And here is a case where no question will be asked in Parliament because they are all in it together.
This is why there is this urgent need for a Right to Information Law in this country, a law that exists in every democracy, but not in Sri Lanka. This is a law that exists in most Indian states and one that covers the country nationally. It is a law that affords the ordinary citizen the right of access to Government information so that he or she will know how public finances are being spent.
The reason why Sri Lanka is averse to introducing such legislation only leads to speculation that there is a need for massive cover-ups. In the backdrop of a defunct Bribery and Corruption Commission, there is clearly a signal that bribery and corruption is on permanent vacation here. A Right to Information Bill was approved by a former UNP Cabinet way back in 2004 but never passed because Parliament was dissolved prematurely by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
In Parliament on September 23 this year, the Chief Government Whip solemnly said that a Right to Information Law was receiving the active consideration of this administration. However, under the Justice Ministry’s report of proposed laws that was tabled in the same Parliament during the budget vote debate such a law is not included on the list. The Justice Ministry under a previous dispensation made an effort at revising the 2004 bill, but clearly, this Government is in no mood to allow the people to know how it spends their monies.
The quality of lawmakers and parliamentarians the world over is on the decline. So commentators say. In countries like the US, however, there is a concerted effort to put systems in place to ensure quality persons get nominated through their party lists and strict Oversight Committees that govern the conduct of Congressmen/ women.
In Britain, the decline has been attributed to the ‘professional politician’ syndrome where the House of Commons is no longer represented by the lawyer, doctor, banker, brick-layer – a representative cross-section of society, but by the research assistant of the sitting MP who must work through the party’s organisational machinery to be picked as a candidate. India’s Parliament is full of wives and relatives of swindlers and murderers who are languishing in jail for their offences. No surprise, therefore, that the Indian Prime Minister is embroiled in a multi-billion rupee telecom tender mega-scandal involving a Minister from Tamil Nadu and his party. In India, the machinery exists to uncover the scandal, however slow moving it may be, and the scandal is now knocking on the door of the Head of Government.
With local council elections due early next year in Sri Lanka, there is once more a call for political parties to draw up a list of candidates. These councils, now overtaken by the Provincial Councils, were the nursery to Parliament, but the less said about most of those graduates, the better.
Already, the Government has done away with what was agreed; to re-introduce the old ward system together with the proportional representation mechanism which means that the Government is comfortable with the PR election system however defective and riddled with corruption. This will mean that only those with unlimited financial resources (if not backed by the State machinery) would be able to succeed at these elections. At least in Britain, MPs have been exposed for spending public finances – having had to declare their expenses. Many of them lost their portfolios, seats and their self-respect in the process.
These checks and balances are absent in Sri Lanka and elected representatives of the people get away scot-free because in the Government’s view the be-all and end-all of governing is to maintain its Parliamentary majority. We have seen the spectacle of MPs who have obtained their seats from one party vote-base so nonchalantly crossing over to the Government accepting portfolios and perks in the process. The courts have given their blessings for these cross-overs.
Questions arise whether democracy is only about periodic elections; and whether the people must enjoy the fruits of free speech, free movement and all those nice things enshrined in their Constitution throughout the year – and have their elected representatives accountable to them throughout their tenure in office. A Right to Information Law will be a step in the right direction if that be the case.