More representative burdens on the way



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Representative democracy, initially, very limited representation under the Colebrook reforms, gradually developed through Donoughmore and led to the post-independence autochthonous constitutions. A new creature had to be created; an honourable man; public spirited, well-informed with the skill and foresight to be an effective legislator.


For centuries preceding, there was no question of elected representation or legislative processes. By karmic ordain these were not matters that concerned the vast majority. To the 'weighty' matters of the State, the King and his court had exclusive rights by birth. Sometimes; they referred to 'consultants', mainly soothsayers and men of religion. But the final decision was taken by the king. The primary concern of all royal courts was self-preservation and perpetuation.


This was more or less the order of things in nearly every ancient society and then appeared timeless, a permanent arrangement in governance.


But in a few places things evolved differently; the democratic instincts stirred, republican ideas emerged and man's intellectual horizons widened. Greece is a golden example of an early experience with democracy and republican concepts. These ideas took root in Western thought and began to evolve.


We cannot claim a parallel evolution in the democratic tradition. From our first king to the last, from Vijaya to Sri Wickrema, the system was monarchical and despotic. There were no other thoughts of governance than one by a king and his coterie of high officials, a system by modern standards both arbitrary and essentially corrupt. For nearly two thousand years, no one offered anything different. Except for the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the various kings nothing else; ideas, technology or systems seem to have emerged. In technology, methods used a thousand years before are praised more than the inventions that emerged later! Not surprisingly, there were no intellectual movements towards a republic, representative form of government or even the rule of law.


Even today, there are many whose intellectual and emotional yearnings are for the diktats of a king, however tyrannical, corrupt or even buffoon like.


Ready or not, from early 20 Century, representation (mandate) became the guiding principle of legitimacy of government in our country. Onwards from 1948, we have been electing our own parliaments to make laws for us and our own governments to run our affairs. How they have fared in managing the country; its racial balance, its social and economic stability, legitimacy of the governing organs, institutional health and the general welfare of the people is recent history.


In the interim, we have faced two bloody insurrections, several widespread and destructive riots, and a devastating separatist war that almost brought the house down. By any account, the responsibility for these dark events lies with our clumsy blundering leaders. Even in less gory times, enforcement of law and order seems at once oppressive, politicized and unintelligent; overall, lacking in transparency and moral authority. So bent are these agencies that in their eyes, those in power do no wrong. Nearly all institutions of government have lost their luster, if not credibility. To questions like whether our Police is an independent law enforcement agency, whether State funds and property are treated as inviolable public assets, whether the Employees Provident Fund invests in the best interest of the contributing workers, whether the Central Bank determines our money supply and monetary policy with the country's economy at heart, whether our institutions of higher learning are on par with other countries, there are no easy answers now; or perhaps the answer is easy, but not complimentary. In the 70-years since independence, whatever honour or integrity our institutions commanded have been sullied and in some cases lost forever. In their capabilities and strength, our national institutions have only retreated.


As a country, we are not only dangerously debt-ridden but have on several important economic indicators, descended in the order.


The quality of the laws that our parliaments have been passing, especially in their lack of clarity and consistency, have only contributed to the muddle. Some of the important financial laws have so many subsequent amendments that interpreting them is well -nigh impossible. They are so confusing and contradictory, that the accepted purposive approach to interpretation has become unhelpful in unraveling the convoluted legislative thinking. Like everything else in a retrogressive society, we need to now resort to the unchallenging literal interpretation method to comprehend the laws passed by our legislators.


When it comes to constitution making our legislators have proved to be singularly inept. In the decade 1970-80 they were engaged in the task of constitution making, arguing that the way to the Promised Land was through a constitution. The two constitutions made by them (1972 and 1978) were met with concern and misgivings in several segments of the community and led eventually to wide-spread disaffection and instability. In fact, the 1970s saw the beginning of one of the most harrowing periods of our recent history. It is widely believed that our constitution making is inspired by subjective considerations, and therefore is designed to the advantage of the makers; the very antithesis of good law making. Naturally, there is skepticism and even suspicion about the integrity of the process. The constitution makers disregard objections. But before long it dawns on all concerned that they are now saddled with a constitution both troubling and faulty. We then spend the succeeding years working out how best to amend or drop the flawed constitution.


However, there is neither muddle nor ambiguity when legislators vote to bestow benefits and privileges on themselves. All political parties in the parliament are in agreement that our MPs deserve the best; from generous allowances to duty free vehicles, subsidized meals to the state of the art health facilities (inevitably overseas, as local standards are suspect) and regular globe-trotting, and all this without any accountability.


In advanced democracies, one takes to a public life to enrich it with your ideas, capabilities and experience. It is obvious that this is not the case here. The enrichment works the other way. By taking to a public life the person is enriched in wealth, status and creature comforts. Almost every person who has taken to politics appears to be richer, at least wealth-wise, for it.


We do not know how many of them are taxpayers, but our MPs lack nothing. There is an encouraging cultural support from the larger social ethos which elevates a politician (any office holder for that matter) to a higher status, a person worthy of exaggerated respect and deference. Lacking in true heroes, the public turns to the fake. Any event; a wedding, a funeral, a school prize giving, to a launch of a water project is enhanced, if there is a politician present as the chief player. The attendance of a minister or two will send the event up in the hierarchy of glamour. To many a member of the public, a corrupt politician is an example of a successful career. Invariably, those who take to politics are gentrified by the experience, a common social ambition. Our poverty is not only a matter of wealth. It is a poverty of philosophy; a way of looking, assessing and judging that is very different. Those eyes now behold a successful 'gentle-man'.


The surest indicator of the rapid social transformation of a member of parliament is the newly acquired lifestyle as well as the aspirations of his children.


They attend the so-called prestigious schools, mainly for the social-climbing value. When it comes to sport or even school boy fun, it is the most Western recreational activity, including a bit of sun bathing while sipping cocktails at a plush hotel pool. The lad will generally park himself in a plush apartment with a snob address. Invariably, the State provided security disturbs his equilibrium and under the cover of that protection the brat turns violent towards helpless customers at hotels and the night clubs he frequents. Then the boy is packed off to a Western country to take in the culture, and if possible acquire a qualification. On his return, the young man is overcome by the pathetic state of his compatriots and nobly sacrifices himself to a public life, truly his father's son.


Having no history of representative democracy, the novel office of a member of parliament has been understood only as an opportunity for a dazzling career, with life style advancement in every sphere, as the reward; an alien idea, interpreted by a cynical mindset.


A nonsense country gets no respect from reality. Talk we may, but we cannot pretend to be a big economy or even a fast growing one. The surest way for a Sri Lankan to earn an honest living is by getting employment overseas. Take out the humble tea bag and the low-technology garment industry and we have no industrial base. A stray dog attacks a young European tourist (he dies of rabies); the resulting cancellations send the already suffering industry into painful spasms.


Per person productivity, whether it be agriculture or industry is below the international average. Even a small kiosk having about Rs. 100,000 per month turnover, will need a minimum of two employees. When a Sri Lankan goes to a foreign embassy for a Visa, however genuine, he is treated like bad news - must you really come to our country? Even embassies of secondary countries treat Sri Lankans with disdain. An oil ship, apparently wanting to unload low quality fuel on the country, is turned away. The whole country runs out of fuel and virtually comes to a stop.


Presently, we have some two hundred odd members of parliament and a few hundred provincial councilors, falling into the category of politicians/legislators.


In their wisdom, our political leaders have come up with a brilliant answer to the burning problems of the country.


There is a need to increase; double, treble or even quadruple the number of legislators we have.


We are moved to silence by the sheer scope of this affront to a nation's intelligence.


When a small number were so bad, how much worse the activities of a larger number!


One fine day, it may be asked why Sri Lanka cannot produce a good Parliament? The answer will be another question: where will we find good and honest men?


Thus far, in this much troubled land, such men have proved to be the most elusive species.


RAVI PERERA


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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