Enriching the political class
Posted on October 8th, 2017

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Last week’s celebration of 70 years of parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka triggered debates and discussions at different levels countrywide. Several Speakers from the Parliaments of country’s belonging to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation were here for the event commemorated with a special session of the incumbent Parliament when the predictable hosannas were sung praising the achievement. Churchill once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” The quote itself, experts say, was not minted by the famous British prime minister/orator though he used it in a speech in the House of Commons in 1947. The verbatim context of that speech makes abundantly clear that Churchill preceded the famous quote with the words “it has been said.”

While few, if any, will deny the benefits of representative democracy, it will be an interesting exercise to determine whether the people or their representatives have benefited more from the parliamentary system. In the years that have passed since the ceremonial inaugural session of then Ceylon’s first Parliament in October 1947, Members of Parliament have greatly benefited not only from the progressively increased emoluments, perquisites and privileges that have today scaled what many see as obscene heights. There is no escaping the reality that the system has enriched the political class beyond reason and it would not be wrong to say that most people by and large resent this. That is unsurprising given the condition of the vast majority of the people they represent evidence by the gleeful alacrity with which the media have seized on each and every one of their growing perks over the years and presented it to the wider public. This continuing exercise feeds the people with information ranging from what MPs eat at the subsidized parliamentary canteen and at what price, to the recent payment of a special monthly allowance of Rs. 100,000 to fund an electorate office.

Who can justify the grant of duty free vehicle permits to legislators? It can be argued with some degree of credibility that MPs need a decent vehicle to serve the electors. But giving them duty free permits to import luxury vehicles that are ordinarily very highly taxed, and allowing them to either flog the permits themselves or the vehicles once they are imported and pocket many millions, takes not just the cake but the whole bakery. It has been weakly argued that fighting elections cost a bomb and MPs must be given an opportunity to recoup their election expenditure. Uncomfortable questions like how they incurred such expenditure in the first instance are never asked. Though it has been said that Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike mortgaged his properties to fund the SLFP, there will not be many who went to the banks to fund even themselves. Wealthy politicians of an earlier vintage are known to have spent hugely from their own resources for the honor of serving the people. But such persons today would belong to the species rara avis. Businessmen who fund politicians do not do so for philanthropic reasons. Most financiers of politicians regard their funding as investments on which fat dividends can be collected with the patronage of winning candidates.

It is not the system that is bad but the people. Human nature is necessarily selfish and there is no political divide between government and opposition when parliamentarians vote themselves lavish perks. Dr. N.M. Perera, the late LSSP leader, was very much a fulltime politician. He did not practice a lucrative profession like some of his colleagues and, perhaps wondering how he could survive after retirement, was an early proponent of parliamentary pensions. Once granted, these were extended to surviving spouses. There has been frequent comment on the fact that MPs qualify for pensions after just five years of parliamentary service unlike public servants who have to serve many years to become entitled to the pension benefits. Husbands and wives have served in our Parliament and we would not be surprised if there were recipients of more than one pension!

While focusing on the negative aspects of the parliamentary system enabling its people to aggrandize themselves, we must never forget that it has over the 70 years of its existence also been of great service to the electors. MPs have been able to raise shortcomings in electorates in the House and find redress for constituents, initiate necessary public expenditure, focus on failures of governance and place those responsible before the bar of public opinion, become influential intermediaries – rightly or sometimes wrongly – between the public and the bureaucracy and much more. Our Parliament has produced some classy orators who could rank with the best in the world with the front benches on both sides of the House – and sometimes the backbench – including towering personalities who were ornaments of the legislature. There has always been the good with the bad and the fault of undesirables being elected to Parliament must be laid at the door of political parties for nominating them and the people themselves for electing them.

Democracy then, we must conclude, is the worst form of government except for the others. Thankfully we have been spared of those others by the failure of an attempted coup d’etat in 1962 and the effort by the JVP which now has some of its members elected to the legislature to overthrow the elected government in 1971 and 1988-89. Our people too have been using their franchise is far greater numbers than in many of the more developed democracies.

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