apathy, committee, Committee on Public Enterprises, Education Act, Higher Education, Higher Education Act, ignorance, National Human Rights Action Plan, parliamentarian, Tertiary and Vocational Education Act
but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
Reading through the articles I have thus far written in this series, I realize that I might have given the impression that I am overwhelmed by work. To some extent this is true, and I am working harder than I have done for years. I suppose the high point of my labours, when I would sometimes be in one office before dawn and leave the other after dusk, was when I headed the Peace Secretariat and was also Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. But after that I had a fallow period, while I was a Member of Parliament.
I was not made a Minister as had I think been originally intended, which I did not worry about too much at the time, thinking that it would be good to get used to being a Parliamentarian and doing what I could in that role. I did not realize then how ridiculous is the role of a Parliamentarian in Sri Lanka, where committees meet rarely and then only to discuss parochial matters, not policy or wider issues. Initially though we did this last in the Education Committee, since we were asked to comment on the draft of a new Act, and that was quite interesting. Attendance indeed was good in those early days, but soon it became clear that the Minister had no interest in the matter, and gradually numbers dropped.
After several meetings, with endless repetition of the same ideas when he decided he had to invite all stakeholders and possible stakeholders to comment, the Minister allowed the matter to lapse. Mohanlal Grero made valiant efforts to revive it when he was appointed first Monitoring Member and then Junior Minister, but he is a mild man and had little impact. So six years later we are as far away from a new Act.
My own ethos is entirely different, which is why, during my brief period as State Minister of Higher Education, I worked swiftly on another casualty of the lethargy of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ministers and officials, the Higher Education Act. The Committee we appointed made rapid progress and, when I resigned, I told the President that I would complete this task. We submitted a new draft to him and the Ministry within a month, but no one was interested.
I should note that I have done the same with a new Tertiary and Vocational Education Act. I found a draft when I was appointed Chairman and, with active support from members of the Commission, which includes Malini Pieris, former Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, we finalized a draft early this year. However we held back on it, given the massive changes we had embarked on, and only went back to work when we felt the sector had been reshaped, with a more rational demarcation of responsibilities. The draft then was amended, and submitted to the Secretary at the beginning of this month, but I suspect that it will take a long time to be finalized by the other elements involved in such changes.
The Education Committee in Parliament then proved useless. More productive was my work on the Committee on Public Enterprises, where I was responsible for two seminal changes. The first was to have the Committee divided into Sub-Committees, so we could try to cover all the institutions that came under our purview. Previously only about 30 of the over 200 bodies we were meant to check on were summoned to Parliament each year, but I changed all that and we reached a stage where we covered nearly all those we were responsible for in a calendar year.
My second innovation was to insist on follow up. When I first attended meetings, I found that the minutes – dating back several years in some cases – demanded action which had not taken place. When I asked what was done about this, I was told that reports COPE requested were sent to members when they arrived. If they did not arrive, nothing was done, and the Secretary looked at me as though I were mad when I pointed out that this was not acceptable. With the support of the Chairman then, we instituted a system whereby reminders were sent.
This too did not always work, so in time we set up a Follow Up Committee which I persuaded Mahinda Amaraweera, whom I had found comparatively serious about the work, to chair. I promised him when he said he was busy that I would do all the work, but he in fact proved a conscientious chairman and told me soon after we started our meetings that this was more productive work than being a Minister. He was I realized comparatively powerless in comparison with his Secretary, who had a direct line to the Presidential Secretariat.
That my efforts in COPE were recognized became clear when Dharmasiri Pieris, a Civil Servant I had much admired when he was in harness, told me that Public Servants much appreciated what I had done. We were polite, he said, which had not always been the case before – I suppose my experience as a Secretary to a Ministry had made me realize that there was no point in the blustering that many Members engaged in – and praised good work and were constructive in our criticism. That alone made me feel my time in Parliament was worthwhile, though whether the reforms I introduced will continue cannot be certain.
With regard to legislation, it was clear that Parliamentarians were not expected to play any part. Indeed the reduction of Members to ciphers had been cystallized in the book authored by Priyani Wijeyesekera which was given out to new Members. She was a former Secretary General of Parliament, but it was clear that she had no idea about what a Parliament is supposed to do. Perhaps such ignorance cannot be blamed in someone who came to Parliament after Jayawardene’s shenanigans had emasculated it, but I was nonetheless astonished that she had not bothered to check on practice elsewhere in the world. With no wider understanding of the issues, she mentions as responsible bodies, in the chapter on legislation, only the Executive and the government’s legal officers. Clearly she had not thought about why Parliament is known as the legislature, and its Members as legislators. Instead she saw Members of Parliament as simply lobby fodder in the process.
Thus the Secretary General’s Office thought I was demanding too much when I asked for copies of any Acts that were put to Parliament for amendment. I pointed out that I could not be expected to vote for or against anything unless I knew what I was doing, but this did not seem to the Secretariat to be essential. Finally they agreed that they would keep copies of previous legislation in the official’s box for me to check when I wanted to, declaring firmly that it would be a waste of money to give copies to all Members since the others were not likely to read them.
I did find on occasion, when Acts were amended time and again, that the Legal Draughtsman’s Department in its wisdom had left out passages, so what we passed made no sense. Certainly no one whom I asked for explanations of what some peculiar sentences meant could enlighten me. My simple suggestion that, in this day of computers, we should not keep amending Acts, but rather withdraw the old Act and replace it, was summarily dismissed by Basil Rajapaksa who said that this was the tradition and it could not be changed. The fact that other countries, including those who had started the tradition, had moved on to make legislation more readily comprehensible to the public, who would not then have to trawl through several documents to find out what the law was, meant nothing to him.
But initially I did have other responsibilities, after I was appointed Adviser on Reconciliation to the President and Lalith Weeratunge, having twice lost the Terms of Reference I had drafted, finally issued a letter which put quite a lot on my plate. I was also put on the Committee to negotiate with the TNA, while Mahinda Samarasinghe asked me to help with the Human Rights Action Plan which we had drafted when I was Secretary to the Ministry. He had lost interest when he was given a Ministry that he felt did not relate to his areas of expertise, so I had had in effect to ensure its finalization, with the support of Mohan Pieris, Attorney General at the time, in whose office we met though he was too busy to participate in our meetings.
By the time the Plan was adopted by Cabinet, Mahinda had been asked to work on Human Rights again, given the abysmal failure of the Ministry of External Affairs to which the subject had foolishly been entrusted in 2010. He asked me to help, and also to chair the Task Force to expedite implementation, which was supposed to report to the Ministerial Sub-Committee on the subject that he chaired.
But that Sub-Committee hardly met and, though I received active cooperation from the public officials whose Departments were responsible for action, it was clear that the structural changes needed would not happen without political input. Mahinda agreed with me that nothing was moving, and I suggested to the President when I resigned that he should make Mahinda Minister for the subject, but there was no response to this and Mahinda himself would not push.
Meanwhile Sajin Vas Gunawardena had stopped asking me for meetings of the Committee to negotiate with the TNA, and in any case that was heading nowhere since G L Pieris refused to take forward a matter on which we had reached agreement and which the President had also, after much discussion, acquiesced in. And I was not able, though my Terms of Reference enjoined this, to monitor the work of the Committee supposed to implement the interim recommendations of the LLRC. Mohan Pieris had finally confessed, after much prevarication initially, that the Committee had not met and was not likely to.
By 2012 then it was clear that I could do little. The reports of the various committees I had set up in the Reconciliation Office – one to promote Reconciliation through Education, one with military personnel to develop ideas on better integration in the north and a socially productive role for the military – were ignored by the President. He also ignored the draft Reconciliation Policy I had prepared with multi-ethnic and multi-political input (from for instance Eran Wickremaratne, M A Sumanthiran, Jeevan Thiagarajah and Javid Yusuf), or rather claimed he had sent it to Lalith for comment, whereas Lalith said he had not seen it. When this happened twice, I got the message.
So I closed the office, which seemed to me a waste of money, though I was told by the helpful Additional Secretary who was in charge of administration for my work, that the cost was minimal. I also resigned from the negotiating team as well as the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force. But I stayed on as Adviser on Reconciliation, since I felt I was doing some useful work in going regularly to Divisional Secretariats in the North and East and providing opportunities to the people to discuss their problems. I told them I could not promise solutions (though a couple of Ministries, most notably Health, would respond promptly, which was one reason I admired Maithripala Sirisena, though I did not know him at all). But I think it helped them to be able to raise issues, and they seemed to welcome my approach. And it certainly made me realize the tremendous potential of the Divisional Secretariats, if only they were given greater responsibility, with better systems of coordination.
That is why the President’s manifesto declares that he will make the Divisional Secretariat the focal point for delivery of services to the people. Sadly I find that no one else is interested in that commitment, or perhaps even understands what it means, which is why it has been totally ignored for the last two years. But I am glad that, in the bleak years between 2012 and 2014, I had at least the opportunity to understand more about what our rural communities need. That, as far as public life went, was the only positive feature of the period which I have characterized in a separate series of articles as an Endgame.
Ceylon Today 17 Dec 2016 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=11305