There have been some recent critical comments in public fora on delays in the government’s response to issues of concern raised at the Presidential elections of 8th January 2015.
The Friday Forum appreciates the difficulties faced by the government in implementing within a short period of 100 days, the ambitious programme of work promised in the election campaign.
Speed in implementation however, must not be at the expense of consultation with the public which is of the essence of good governance. It is important for us as citizens to ask that implementing these commitments should not result in hasty and non consultative policy formulation and law reform regarding matters that are of critical importance to the people. A non consultative reform process adopted to meet the 100 days target, cannot be in the public interest, as it can pose significant problems of implementation.
<strong>LAW AND POLICY REFORM</strong>
Enactment of a National Audit Bill requires review and consultation with stake holders, including concerned professionals. Some legislation like the new Children’s Act and the amendments to the colonial Vagrants’ Ordinance were prepared during the last government’s administration and require change due to new policy perspectives. The Vagrants Ordinance in particular, which follows 19th century English law in criminalising poverty by punishing beggars and the unemployed, needs to be repealed rather than amended!
It is welcome that the Right to Information Bill and the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution dealing with the executive Presidency and the Independent Commissions are available for public debate and discussion. The Constitutional amendment is an opportunity for all Parliamentarians to engage in constructive criticism that will ensure changes in the Constitution in the national interest. Voters have a right to expect that those who seek their votes do not engage in adversarial politics, or make their support for the amendments conditional on receiving personal gains.
<strong> APPOINTMENT AND REMOVAL OF JUDGES OF THE SUPERIOR COURTS</strong>
Given the controversy and divergent opinions that have emerged in regard to the office of Chief Justice, it is critically important to include amendments to the Constitutional provisions on appointment and removal of judges of the superior courts. The procedures must be clarified to ensure due process and the independence of the judiciary. Provisions in the draft Constitution of 2000 and the Indian Constitution provide useful comparative material that can be used in drafting this amendment without delay.
There is an emerging consensus on the priorities for electoral reform including preventing the appalling practice of crossovers. There must be support for affirmative action to prevent the abysmally low representation of women in the legislative bodies of Sri Lanka. The Commissioner of Elections and his staff have a wealth of experience that must be used in drafting the Constitutional amendment on the Elections Commission as well as the electoral reforms. These reforms are complex and it may not be possible to complete them within the 100 days programme. The government should clarify for the public whether these reforms will be enacted now, and if not, the content and time frame of these reforms.
<strong>CORRUPTION AND ABUSE OF POWER</strong>
It is important that there is public confidence in the government’s anti corruption drive. Information in the public space on allegations of massive corruption, irresponsible abuse of authority and plundering of public funds and national resources require, in our view, an urgent response from the government. We recognise that good governance requires prosecutions only after adequate investigation and due process.
However the public must be briefed regularly by a senior official on the measures taken so far, and the stage at which these proceeding are currently placed. A public perception of government apathy and indifference is encouraged by the lack of clarity and transparency in these matters. There should not be any room for citizens to think that insignificant cases are given priority by the Executive, while serious allegations of corruption and abuse of power by politicians and senior officials of the former government are being ignored. In particular, the manner in which the Central Bank and the Monetary Board functioned in matters such as the hiring of allegedly bankrupt firms and authorising expenses relating to the Commonwealth Games and the conference, demands an immediate investigation.
Care must also be taken to ensure that there is public confidence in the professional competence and independence of committees appointed to investigate allegations of corruption and abuse of power. This confidence is seriously undermined when it is sometimes alleged that the investigations are being conducted by persons with political connections. Due process and “yahapalanaya” also demand that a senior official or chief executive whose actions are being investigated, takes leave from his post pending the investigation.
<strong>APPOINTMENTS TO KEY POSTS</strong>
Appointments were often made to key posts in public administration and corporations by the former regime on the basis of political connections rather than proven merit and competence. The new government has faced serious problems in making fresh appointments to these posts. A quick review of these provisions in the relevant legislation must be undertaken. Legislation can be amended to provide guidelines and strengthen appointments to corporations and regulatory bodies such as the University Grants Commission, to ensure that the Executive’s discretion to make political appointments is curtailed. Professional bodies such as the OPA, the Chamber of Commerce and the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women can be given a role in submitting lists of persons suitable for such key appointments. A gender balance in appointments must also be ensured to address the current gender gap in appointments to these institutions. Above all the government itself must be scrupulous in not appointing relatives to key posts when the appointing authority is a politician exercising a discretionary power. Such appointments create an impression in the public of continued nepotism by this government.
<strong> MISUSING EXECUTIVE AUTHORITY AND THE ARMED FORCES</strong>
Concern has been expressed in many public fora with regard to an allegation that the former President took steps to interfere with the results of the January elections. It is important for the public to know what steps have been taken so far to investigate this claim, and the stage of these proceedings. The events associated with these allegations also require an immediate review of the current practice of renewing by gazette notification the power to call out the armed forces. Good governance and the rule of law require law enforcement to be viewed as the duty and responsibility of the police.
<strong> Prof. Savitri Goonesekere Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda</strong>
on behalf of the Friday Forum
Professor Savitri Goonesekere, Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, Prof. Camena Guneratne Ms. Damaris Wickremesekera, Professor Arjuna Aluwihare, Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Mr. Faiz-ur Rahman, Dr. Deepika Udagama, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, Mr. Ananda Galapatti, Pulasthi Hewamanne, Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekera, Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Professor Gameela Samarasinghe, Mr. Saliya Pieris, Mr. D. Wijayanandana, Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, Mr. Priyantha Gamage, Mr. Javid Yusuf, Ms. Shanthi Dias.