Suggestions for Improving the Quality of Our Legislators
Posted on July 30th, 2017

Presentation at the OPA / Association of Scientific and Techinical Officers Seminar 

Let me begin with some very simple concepts, since these will help us to understand what exactly we should aim for in trying to improve the quality of our legislators. First, we should examine the role of Parliament, what it is meant to do, and how it can do this effectively. Second, we should examine the role of Parliamentarians, and what is required for them to fulfil their roles effectively.

At its simplest, Parliament is there to make laws. That is why the title of this seminar refers to legislators. So we need to consider what Parliamentarians need to know to make laws in the interests of the country. Connected with this is the passing of regulations which are required by laws to give them teeth.

But there is a second function of Parliament that springs from its legislative function. Amongst the most important laws it makes are those affecting the finances of the country; hence the need to have an annual budget, which is discussed at length. So we need to consider what Parliamentarians need to know not only to use the resources of the country productively, but also to develop resources.

Thirdly, since it is Parliament that allocates as it were the finances which are used by the executive branch, it must make sure these are used in accordance with the provisions it makes. Hence it must monitor the use of funds by the executive.

These are the principal functions of Parliament. But because we are still steeped in the Westminster system, we confuse the functions of Parliament as Parliament with those of the executive branch of government, which on the Westminster model is based in Parliament. Even though we moved in 1978 to an Executive Presidency, we have – uniquely amongst countries which elect an Executive President independently of a parliamentary election – maintained the rest of the Executive in Parliament. Incidentally I should note that my despair about what passes for Departments of Political Science in this country is that there has been no serious research about both the rationale and the impact of J R Jayewardene’s decision to violate the commitment of his manifesto to have an executive outside Parliament.

So, sadly, our Parliamentarians, all of whom hanker after Executive office, do not realize what their responsibilities are as legislators, nor as the guardians of the finances of the country against the excesses of the executive branch. The scrutiny of legislation by Parliamentarians is non-existent. And though there are some admirable individuals in the financial oversight committees, the ridiculous attendance figures at these committees make it clear that most Parliamentarians could not care less about such responsibilities.

The problem is exacerbated by the other function of Parliamentarians, which we have to accept as a reality, though it has nothing to do with legislation or financial oversight. This is the representative function. Parliamentarians represent particular segments of the population, and they have a responsibility to look to the welfare of those they represent. They must obviously do this if they wish to continue to be elected, but such work is also necessary because otherwise the interests of particular areas will not be highlighted.

Unfortunately Sri Lanka has, again uniquely, developed an electoral system that confuses the issue. Because all elected Parliamentarians have to seek votes in a whole District, and therefore have to work for all the people in the District, their energies are diffused. They cannot concentrate on coherent development programmes that will enhance amenities and create economic opportunities for a targeted area, because they are always looking over their shoulders to see what the competition is up to. And that competition is as much if not more from their own party as from elsewhere.

It is true that in theory Parliamentarians are allocated to particular constituencies, and they will do more for those areas. But it beggars belief that our electoral system still binds them to the District as a whole, so that they are beset with problems from all over the District and cannot ignore these – nor indeed trying to fit individuals from all over the District into government jobs.

One obvious remedy is to change the electoral system. I still find it shocking that the most important structural change in the manifesto on which President Sirisena won the 2015 Presidential election has been forgotten. He himself promised, in seeking the support of his own party for the 19th amendment, that he would not dissolve Parliament before it also passed the 20th amendment. But he broke that promise under pressure. His chief coalition partner has indicated that he does not want a change, but it is appalling that those who believe in good governance are not agitating for this, and are instead pursuing matters the benefits of which are debatable. Given that the President has made it clear that he knows the present system contributes to corruption, it seems to me a duty that all those concerned with purposeful reform should pursue, to ensure change in the electoral system.

I should add that there is a simple solution that could be implemented immediately to at least improve the situation. When Jayewardene realized that his original conception of Proportional Representation, a pure list, led to those at the bottom abandoning the party, he introduced choice. But instead of one vote per person, he gave three, to ensure that all candidates campaigned all over the District, and fought with others in their party for preferences. This is absolutely unnecessary. If voters had just one preference vote, candidates would be confined to their constituencies, and would not squander massive amounts on propaganda all over the District. And while it might be argued that those with smaller constituencies would be at a disadvantage, this could be remedied by allocating the seats each party won at the election on the basis of proportions of the votes of their constituency they obtained.

Such a system would also help with the selectivity that parties should exercise in choosing candidates. Now, because candidates are nominated on the basis of the District as a whole, there are no clear criteria to choose the best representative possible – and therefore a range of criteria is employed including say relationship to already established politicians. What is preferable is a system whereby individuals apply to be candidates for a particular constituency and have to establish their credentials with regard to that particular constituency. Rival claims can then be assessed consistently, with a clear focus on benefit to the people of the particular constituency.

I have argued at length for constituency based candidates because that seems essential. But connected with this is the idea of seeking excellence in candidates, and that should contribute also to improving the quality of the judgment Parliamentarians will exercise with regard to the first three functions of legislators that I began by describing. At present, given the intensity of the competition for nomination in each District, and the power as it were exercised by those with the resources required to campaign throughout the District, general awareness and analytical capability are ignored. When it is a question of picking just one individual for one area, these qualities too can be assessed.

But while obviously it would be good to have more thoughtful people in Parliament, we need also to accept that there will be differences not only with regard to thinking capacity but also common sense. It is therefore vital that we develop systems to help legislators do their duty.

One obvious remedy is better familiarization sessions for parliamentarians when they are elected. I was horrified by what I received, which was only information on the perks available to me. But when I first used to visit Parliament, and had the benefit of seeing how a capable Secretary General worked, I saw that familiarization included explaining the Committee system, what the Committee stage of legislation involved, and how private members could contribute through questions and motions.

All that has gone by the board. Private members motions are a joke, and the time available is monopolized by a few individuals, whereas there should be a process of selectivity that privileges national impact. The provisions we tried in the last Parliament to introduce into Standing Orders, to ensure that questions were answered promptly and in person, have been totally ignored in the pitiful changes the government has now introduced into Standing Orders.

And worst of all, Parliamentary Commitees still continue a joke. They have turned into places where individuals raise parochial questions pertaining to constituency, or rather, District problems. There is obviously need of such a forum, but we tried to suggest that such problems should be looked at in the Ministry, where relevant officials could be summoned without them having to waste their time in Parliament with many not wanted at all, but having just to sit there. And instead of all members who bother to attend Committees having to listen to problems of individual schools or bridges, the concerned MP could deal on an individual basis with those in executive authority.

Committees in Parliament are meant to look at policies, assess legislation, examine expenditure. For this purpose, Committees should be small, and individuals should sit on just two or three committees, where they can concentrate on issues of principle. The Committee itself should develop collegiality, so that members of all parties would work together to develop common objectives and monitor achievements. They would be assisted by experts who would be available to provide the required background information and data.

One reason Parliamentarians do not attend committees is that they do not see what purpose they achieve. If they are given teeth, a few individuals could make a difference, in selected areas. That would at least restore to Parliamentarians the title of legislators, whereas now they are simply treated as lobby fodder.

To sum up then –

a) We need to change the electoral system

b) We need, pending that, to focus the attention of candidates, and of parties in selecting them, on individual constituencies. Given voters just a single preference vote will help to concentrate attention.

c) We need to encourage parties, in selecting candidates, to be aware of the general analytical capabilities required, with regard to law-making as well as financial oversight. It may be a good idea for parties to post the general capabilities of each candidate for Parliament, and then to draw up, after the election, a schedule of broad areas in which candidates have expertise.

d) We need to make committees effective by setting them at a manageable size that encourages collegiality, and selecting members in terms of their interest in the subject. The schedule suggested above would be useful to parties, and would indicate to the public the expertise being brought to bear on policy questions. Where any area lacks expertise, Parliament should have consultants available to advise and educate. A possible schedule is appended.

e) We need to ensure better training for new Members as they enter Parliament, so that they have a clear understanding of their various responsibilities.

f) We need to ensure the effective functioning of parliamentary processes, with due attention to the reports of committees, the opportunity for private members to raise issues and promote legislation, and entrenching the accountability of the executive to Parliament by making responses to committee recommendations as well as questions mandatory, with sanctions applicable in case of shortcomings

Schedule of subject areas in which Parliament needs expertise

a. Legal provisions

b. Finance

c. Public Administration

d. Foreign Relations and Security

e. Education

f. Health and Social Services

g. Industry, Trade and Commerce

h. Agriculture, Fisheries, Water Resources and the Environment

i. Housing, Construction, Transport and Highways

j. Power and Energy

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