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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Rupees and Cents: Finding Out What Sri Lanka MPs are Worth

Many people will be surprised to know that they are entitled to request and scrutinise their MPs’asset declarations. We have tested the system thoroughly and it works. Here’s all you need to know.

Who has to declare their assets? An annual disclosure must be made by the President, MPs, Judges, Board and staff officers of Public Corporations, Provincial Councillors, Local Authority members, newspaper proprietors and Editors amongst others.

How can I obtain an MP’s asset declaration? Along with a cheque for Rs 750 send a basic letter addressed to the Speaker of Parliament, requesting the particular MP’s asset declaration. In our experience, within 2-3 weeks you have the request (tweet us if you want more details on the process @manthrilk).

Why does no one know about this? The prescribed fee of Rs 750 had been lost in the government gazette (650/7 – 19 February 1991) until we uncovered it. When used in conjunction with the legal right for ‘any person’ to request an asset declaration under s.5 (3) of the Declaration of Assets & Liabilities Act 1975 (as amended in 1988), a citizen is provided with a powerful tool for MP accountability.

What information can I find out? There is a wealth of information relating to the declarer, their spouse and their children. The items declared include, but are not limited to:

• Properties, with details on how they were acquired and from whom
• Bank Accounts, Shares, Securities – with breakdowns
• Loans and Overdrafts
• Vehicles
• Jewellery

These include the details at the date of annual declaration and at the time of first having to declare (for a MP, when they were first nominated – for some MPs this dates back decades). This provides a useful point of comparison, allowing a citizen to observe the change of assets and liabilities of a MP over their time in office.

Why do I want this information? Put simply – the greater the information with the public, the greater the empowerment of the citizen. Public servants’salaries are paid from the public purse, and the legal right to scrutinise an asset declaration reflects the social contract underpinning the relationship between those in public service and ordinary citizens.

How do I know if the declaration is correct? You don’t. However, if you suspect an inaccuracy, this can be reported to the stipulated authorities (Bribery Commissioner, Commissioner-General of Inland Revenue etc). The authorities will determine whether to investigate the matter. However, it is important to remember that citizens can discern for themselves whether the details disclosed align with their perception of the MP – an essential tool of accountability.

Will MPs be surprised by this intrusion? Many MPs are aware of the public right of request – having received numerous internal circulars, which draw their attention to the public’s right. Great, so what’s the catch? There are two gagging provisions [s7 (4) & s.8 Declaration of Assets & Liabilities Act 1975] which prevent a requestor from freely discussing the declaration obtained or sharing it. A breach of these laws can lead to either 1 year in prison and/or a Rs 1,000 fine.

That’s absurd, what can be done about it? To facilitate greater public freedom, the gagging provisions can be repealed. This will allow people to legitimately share the declarations. In turn, a public discussion can organically emerge about MPs and address the many misconceptions that exist over their wealth. This is a distinct improvement from the present peripheral media coverage given to the FCID investigations. This repeal will make the public full stakeholders in the process of holding MPs accountable. The change in the law is simple, with only a very basic act of Parliament required.

Will the government champion it? It would presently seem unlikely, given other pressing legislative bottlenecks, coupled with a degree of discomfort amongst some MPs both in Government and Opposition. However, given that the RTI Bill has gone off the radar, this much smaller, less detailed Bill will allow any political party to publicly demonstrate their commitment to ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance). This could even be brought by way of a private members Bill, whereby an individual MP can set it on the legislative agenda and make it a public issue. This would mark a significant change in political culture, but will require a party to boldly prioritise the empowerment of citizens, ahead of the concerns of some of their MPs.

The need for unhindered public scrutiny of asset declarations is a timely issue. Following the election of President Sirisena, a governance mandate has evolved from being a civil society pipedream to a central campaign theme. If public asset declarations resonate with the buzz that surrounded the ‘yahapalanaya’ movement, bringing similar potential electoral windfalls, champions will step forward.

However, will any political party be willing to take the first step to enhance public scrutiny of asset declarations? Or must civil society better frame the need for greater MP accountability? Share your thoughts and questions at www.manthri.lk/en/blog; over Twitter @manthrilk, or by text to the manthri.lk hotline: 071-4639882.
-Asoka Obeyesekere-Governance Consultant at Verité Research


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