Parliamentary Affairs – A Brief Commentary on Nihal Seneviratne’s "Gaalumuwadorin Diyawannawata"


Nihal Seneviratne

by Leelananda De Silva

Amongst all my contemporaries at the University at Peradeniya in the latter half of the 1950s, Nihal Seneviratne (affectionately known as Galba) had the most unique and unusual occupation in later years. He joined as an Assistant Clerk to the House of Representatives and ended his career as Secretary General of Parliament. I cannot think of anyone in Sri Lanka who has more authoritative knowledge of parliamentary affairs. He wrote his memoirs, "A Clerk Reminisces" a couple of years back and now he has translated it into Sinhalese with a changed title, "Gaalumuwadorin Diyawannawata" (From Galle Face to Diyawanna). There is very little writing in book form, either in English or in Sinhalese, on parliamentary affairs since 1948 and this translation is most welcome to a new and younger generation.

I shall refer briefly to a few issues that Nihal Seneviratne has raised. In chapter one "Hand Grenade within Parliament", he describes the events of that day in 1987 when a hand grenade was thrown inside the chamber of Parliament, killing one MP and injuring others, and narrowly missing the President and other ministers. What the author has described, are the bare facts and the very convenient acquittal of the accused, who was a minor employee in Parliament. This account does not address the many questions that have been raised as to the real culprits who planned this event. Of course, that is not the task of the Secretary General of Parliament. It is surprising that a more wide ranging inquiry was not instituted to obtain more knowledge of the political shenanigans behind this episode. Were there high-level personnel involved in this incident?

Another most interesting chapter is the "Shift of Parliament to Sri Jayawardenapura". This was a momentous event in the history of our country. But from what the author says, it is clear that it was all done in great secrecy, and only a very few people around the President were privy to the many actions taken to shift the Parliament. This is hardly the way in which the decision to create a new Parliamentary complex should have been taken and implemented. The Parliament was lavishly built and the MPs endowed with many facilities which they never had in the previous building. This was the first step in making the life of MPs most comfortable and detached from the realities and difficulties that the country faced.

Nihal Seneviratne refers to the decline in Parliamentary standards and the behaviour of MPs and he suggests that better educated MPs, with perhaps a degree from the University could lead to the improvement of current practices. This is a matter of urgent importance and should be discussed more widely. However, in earlier Parliaments, there were great Parliamentarians who did not have degrees or even O Levels. D.S. Senanayake and Sirima Bandaranaike come to mind. Given the current standards of universities and the kind of graduates who are passing out from many faculties, would a university degree help to improve standards? I wonder how many MPs who were recently involved in the mayhem in Parliament had university or other professional qualifications.

There is a chapter which deals with the "Death of Dudley Senanayake and the Lake House Scandal". The author is making a connection between the former Prime Minister’s funeral and the takeover of Lake House. I am not so sure about this sequence of events. From reports at the time, the LSSP, which was a coalition partner, was keen to take over Lake House while the Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike was most hesitant about this takeover. Whatever it was, this is a subject of national interest and requires more research.

Nihal Seneviratne knew the old Parliament as well as the new. The Presidential system, which came into effect from 1978, removed the primacy of Parliament. After 1978, the Parliament had little influence on the making and unmaking of governments. Moreover, the electoral system under the Constitution of 1978 de-linked the close connection between the MP and his constituents. There were no more single member constituencies. This change in the system of electing members could also have led to a decline in standards and increasing levels of corruption. There is so much more that the author can enlighten us with his wide ranging knowledge of parliamentary affairs.

Another issue that the author might have considered is the role of the Speaker in Parliament, who is the master of the Secretary General. Did it change after 1978? After the 19th amendment a few years back, the role of the Speaker appears to have changed significantly. He has more powers now, even in non-parliamentary matters, such as chairing the Constitutional Council and being engaged in decisions on higher appointments in the public service. He’s also the authority to sign off legislative acts of Parliament into law. These are new tasks. Has this brought the Speaker more into the political realm, than being the "dignified emollient of an organized quarrel", as described, if I remember right, by Walter Bagehot, an authority on the British Constitution. There was a recent confrontation between the President and the Speaker which would have been unimaginable under old parliamentary traditions. These are all matters that came to mind in reading this book.

Nihal Seneviratne has a vast knowledge of parliamentary affairs, and they are a vanishing species. There has been no history of Parliament in the period 1948 to 1977 or for that matter, of the State Council which existed between 1931 and 1937, and during which time much of the social legislation of Ceylon and Sri Lanka were enacted. We have little recorded knowledge of the great parliamentary debates of the past, or of the great legislative acts which were passed by Parliament in those early years. These are appropriate matters for research to be undertaken by faculties of political science at universities. A sense of history is vital if we are to learn lessons from the past. Political Science faculties of universities could obtain the assistance of persons of the calibre of Nihal Seneviratne in organizing these research activities. It is also feasible for Parliament itself to organize a meaningful research programme into parliamentary history.

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