by C.A. Chandraprema
The government has made an official statement to the effect that it’s reconsidering the 19th Amendment but no such official statement has been made with regard to the 13th Amendment. However opposition politicians have expressed the view that the government is trying to use its two thirds majority to do away with the 13th Amendment as well.
The government does not have to take the trouble to do anything to get rid of the 13th Amendment. It has been tied up in knots by the yahapalana political parties including the Tamil National Alliance so effectively that all that the government has to do to get rid of it for good, is to do nothing. If the government is to restore the provincial councils system, they will need a two thirds majority to do away with its predecessor’s 2017 Act which sent the PC system into the limbo that it is in at present.
When the provincial councils system was functioning there was the oft heard complaint that it had not been made fully functional i.e. that the police and land powers of the provincial councils had not been implemented as originally intended. This has been a major bone of contention during the past three decades with the Tamil National Alliance calling for its full implementation and even demanding that the Sri Lankan government should go beyond the 13th Amendment in order to satisfy Tamil aspirations. One thing that we have to realize is that like so many other aspects of the 1978 Constitution, the 13th Amendment is a very badly drafted piece of legislation. When police and land powers were included in the 13th Amendment, they were copied wholesale from the Indian constitution with no consideration for its practicability in Sri Lanka.
In India, what has been said in the text of the Constitution in relation to the powers over land of the center and the states has been defined and interpreted by the Supreme Court. In the landmark 1962 case, State Of West Bengal vs Union of India, a majority judgment concluded that the structure of the Indian Union is centralized, with the States occupying a secondary position. Hence the Center possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to States. The Indian SC observed in this case that even under Constitutions which are truly federal and full sovereignty of the States is recognized, the power to utilize property of the State for Union purposes is not denied. Therefore the power of the Union to legislate in respect of property situated in the States remains unrestricted. This judgment was delivered in 1962. The provincial councils system was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1987. If the text dealing with land powers in the 13th Amendment had been formulated on the lines laid down in State of West Bengal vs Union of India, the Northern Tamil political parties would have had more realistic expectations with regard to powers over land. Instead, the text of the 13th Amendment on land powers followed the text of the Indian Constitution thus making it necessary for Sri Lanka to reinvent the wheel as it were.
In 2013, Sri Lanka finally got its own version of State Of West Bengal vs Union of India which defined the extent of the land powers mentioned in the 13th Amendment. The 2013 case of Solaimuthu Rasu, vs The State Plantations Corporation was heard by a three member bench of the Supreme Court made up of Chief Justice Mohan Pieris, K.Sripavan, and Eva Wanasundera and each judge delivered separate judgments while coming to the same conclusion. Justice Sripavan observed in his judgment that ‘land’ is a Provincial Council subject only to the extent set out in Appendix II (of the 9th schedule of the Constitution). The Constitutional limitations imposed by the legislature shows that in the exercise of its legislative powers, no exclusive power is vested in the Provincial Councils with regard to the subject of ‘land’… a Provincial Council can utilize ‘State Land’ only upon it being made available to it by the Government. It therefore implies that a Provincial Council cannot appropriate to itself without the government making state land available to such Council. Such state land can be made available by the Government only in respect of a Provincial Council subject.
Justice Sripavan explained further that the only power cast upon the Provincial Council is to administer, control and utilize such state land in accordance with the laws passed by Parliament and the statutes made by the Provincial Council… Even after the establishment of Provincial Councils in 1987, state land continued to be vested in the Republic and disposition could be carried out only in accordance with Article 33(d) of the Constitution read with 1:3 of Appendix II to the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Despite such Supreme Court interpretations given in India and Sri Lanka, the Tamil lobby in Sri Lanka continues to demand exclusive land powers that even Tamil Nadu does not possess. They may point to the text of the 13th Amendment, but never to the interpretations given to that text in India or even in Sri Lanka. People pretend that they have neither seen nor heard of any interpretation given with regard to land powers and we keep going round and round in circles.
When it comes to police powers however, what the 13th Amendment has is what India actually has in practice. The first item on the Provincial Council List of powers is Police and Public order. The extent of these powers are set out in an Appendix to the 13th Amendment according to which the Sri Lanka police force was to be divided into a National Division (including Special Units) and nine Provincial Divisions. The National division would have jurisdiction only over 11 specified areas such as offenses against the State, election offenses, offenses relating to currency, offenses committed against a public officer, a judicial officer, or a Member of Parliament, offenses relating to state property and international crimes etc. Other than such specified offenses, all other day to day police work such as crimes, traffic, drugs, fraud and maintenance of public order etc. were to be carried out by the provincial police forces.
Thus what we were to have under the 13th Amendment were in effect nine different police forces combined with a national police force all crammed into an area the size of one of India’s smaller states. A police system designed for a sub-continent is applied to a country only a little bigger than Himachal Pradesh. Furthermore the creation of separate police forces for each province would have given rise to a Tamil police force in the north, a Muslim and Tamil police force in the east and Sinhala police forces in the rest of the country – a sure recipe for disaster given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic conflict. No leader in the past three decades since the 13th Amendment was passed has even considered implementing the police powers laid down in the 13th Amendment. Moreover, these police powers have been included in the 13th Amendment in a situation where some of the most important safeguards in the Indian Constitution against separatism have been left out.
The missing safeguards
The Indian President’s veto power over state legislation: Even though some Indian states are much bigger than most nation states in the world, the Indian President can veto any legislation that comes to him from the states. According to Articles 200 and 201 of the Indian Constitution, When a Bill has been passed by the Legislative Assembly of a State it has to be presented to the Governor for assent. The Governor can either give his assent or reserve it for the consideration of the President. The President can either assent to the Bill or withhold assent therefrom and he does not have to give any explanation as to why he withholds assent. He does not have to consult the Supreme Court or any other authority. This veto power is exercised entirely at the discretion of the Indian President.
In terms of Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment however, every statute made by a Provincial Council has to be presented to the Governor for his assent, and the Governor may either assent to the statute or reserve it for reference by the President to the Supreme Court, for a determination on the constitutionality of the statute. If the Supreme Court determines that the statute is consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, the Governor is mandatorily required to assent to the statute. The Sri Lankan President is thus only a post box through whom the Governor sends the statute to the Supreme Court and receives its opinion! The Sri Lankan Executive President has no discretionary power over statutes passed by the provincial councils even though the supposedly ceremonial Indian President has such powers.
Taking over state legislative power in the national interest: According to Article 249 if the Indian Constitution, if the Council of States (the upper house of Indian parliament – the Rajya Sabha) has declared by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting that it is necessary or expedient in the national interest that Parliament should make laws with respect to any matter enumerated in the State List, it shall be lawful for Parliament to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to that matter while the resolution remains in force. Such A resolution shall remain in force for a period not exceeding one year, and so long as a resolution approving the continuance in force of such resolution is passed, it can continue in force for a further period of one year. This takeover of legislative power can continue indefinitely for as long as is required. (It’s important to note that it’s only the upper house of parliament that needs to vote on this matter and that too only with a two thirds majority of Members who may be present on that day, and not a two thirds majority of the whole number of Members of the Rajya Sabha.)
Take over of state legislative power when a state of emergency is in operation: According to Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, Parliament shall, while a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, have power to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the State List. A law made by Parliament under this provision will lapse six months after the Proclamation of Emergency has ceased to operate.
We have to recognize that what has been dished out to us in the form of the 13th Amendment is something of a much lower order than that which exists in India. For example, under Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, the executive power of the Union extends to the giving of directions to any State as to the manner in which the executive power thereof is to be exercised and further, the power of Parliament to make laws includes the power to make laws with regard to matters that are not on the Union list (i.e. items on the State list). However according to Article 154J of the Sri Lankan Constitution introduced by the 13th Amendment which is the equivalent of Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a state of emergency is in operation, the President may give directions to any Governor as to the manner in which the executive power exercisable by the Governor is to be exercised; but Parliament will not have the power to legislate on matters coming under the provincial councils list!
Shortchanged at every turn
It’s only with regard to the ‘President’s rule’ provisions that we appear to have got what the Indian Constitution has, but even that is merely an appearance and we have been shortchanged there was well. Article 356 of the Indian Constitution states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of a State or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the Government of the State and all or any of the powers exercisable by the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Legislature of the State shall be exercisable by the authority of Parliament;
The equivalent provision in the Sri Lankan Constitution which was introduced by the 13th Amendment – Article 154L – states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of the Province or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the administration of the Province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation – (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the administration of the Province and all or any of the powers vested in, or exercisable by, the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Provincial Council shall be exercisable by, or under the authority of Parliament. Thus we see that the President’s rule provisions in the Indian Constitution and Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment are almost identical. The difference however is that in India, President’s rule can remain in force continuously for a maximum period of three years, but in Sri Lanka President’s rule can remain in force only for a maximum of one year.
What was stated above was just the most obvious instances where Sri Lanka has been shortchanged. Closer scrutiny of the Indian Constitution and the way it operates, will reveal many more instances. If the Sri Lankan President had veto power over all statutes passed by the provincial councils, if the declaration of an emergency automatically gave the Sri Lanka Parliament the power to legislate on any matter coming under the provincial councils list, and if there was a system whereby Parliament could take over the legislative power of any province in the event of perceived danger as stipulated in Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, the entire attitude towards the devolution of power in this country would have been very different. As of now, people in Sri Lanka see devolution as a kind of creeping separatism, and they are right because the demands that we hear most often are for powers that even the Indian states do not possess.
The 13th Amendment was drafted before India got into a confrontation with the LTTE and before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. That was a time when some officers of the Indian army even thought that the LTTE would not turn on them because the latter had been trained and given refuge in India. Furthermore, because Sri Lanka was a small country, some would have thought that fewer safeguards would be required here. The Sri Lankan side may have thought that because India was guaranteeing the implementation of the peace accord, nothing can go wrong and they may have thought that a downsized version of India’s President’s rule provisions was all that was needed in terms of constitutional safeguards against separatism.
Both India and Sri Lanka have learnt many new things since then. Even though the provincial councils system is supposed to be based on the Indian system, we don’t have any of the safeguards that India has. To expect police powers to be implemented in such circumstances is unrealistic. In the opinion of this writer, if legislation is to be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament to revive the provincial councils system, the same legislation should be used to remove all references to police powers from the provincial councils list in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution for the reasons given above.
Closer scrutiny of criticisms against 20A
Over the past several days, we have been hearing various criticisms of the 20A by members of the opposition as well as from pro-government quarters. Some members of the government audit service too came out against certain provisions in the 20A. Are these criticisms valid or are we missing something? If we grade the criticisms that have got the most amount of media coverage from the most serious to the irrelevant, the most serious allegation relates to the issues concerning the Auditor General and the Audit Service Commission.
The decision of the government to abolish the Audit Service Commission and to make changes in the 19th Amendment provisions relating to the Auditor General are being portrayed as preparations for grand larceny on a hitherto unprecedented scale by the new Rajapaksa government. This is due to a misconception about the role of the Audit Service Commission. Many people are obviously under the impression that the Audit Service Commission is similar to the Elections Commission that the 19A created.
We all know that the Elections Commission is the body that’s responsible for holding elections and after an election, all three members of the Elections Commission sign the Gazette announcing the names of those who have won seats. The Audit Service Commission that the 19A created was not a body like that. It’s not an Audit Commission but an Audit ‘Service’ Commission. According to Article 153C(1) of the Constitution introduced by the 19A, the sole purpose of the Audit Service Commission is to preside over the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of the members belonging to the Sri Lanka State Audit Service. The only other task it has been assigned is to prepare the annual estimates of the National Audit Office, but you don’t need an Audit Service Commission for that.
In other words, the Audit Service Commission was created simply to duplicate the work already being done by the Public Service Commission. The question that has to be asked is, why have a clone of the Public Service Commission just to cater to the rather limited number of employees in the government audit service? Furthermore, if the Auditor General’s subordinates come under a specially created Audit Service Commission, shouldn’t the subordinates of the Attorney General also come under an AG’s Dept. Service Commission? If taken to its logical conclusion, there will be as many ‘service commissions’ as there are divisions of the government service. The decision to abolish the Audit Service Commission is therefore obviously a housekeeping measure so as not to needlessly duplicate work already being done by other bodies such as the Public Service Commission.
Powers of the Auditor General
Changes have also been proposed to the provisions relating to the Auditor General. Under the 19th Amendment, the provisions relating to the powers of the Auditor General reads as follows:
“154(1)The Auditor-General shall audit all departments of the Government, the Office of the Secretary to the President, the Office of the Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Offices of the Cabinet of Ministers, the Judicial Services Commission, the Constitutional Council, the Commissions referred to in the Schedule to Article 41B, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Secretary-General of Parliament, local authorities, public corporations, business and other undertakings vested in the Government under any written law and companies registered or deemed to be registered under the Companies Act, No. 7 of 2007 in which the Government or a public corporation or local authority holds fifty per centum or more of the shares of that company including the accounts thereof.”
Under the proposed 20A, the above provision is to be replaced with the following:
“154(1) The Auditor-General shall audit the accounts of all departments of Government, the Offices of the Cabinet of Ministers, the Judicial Service Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Provincial Public Service Commissions, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Secretary-General of Parliament and the Commissioner of Elections, local authorities, public corporations and business or other undertakings vested in the Government under any written law.”
We see that under the changes contemplated by the 20A, references to the Office of the Secretary to the President, the Office of the Secretary to the Prime Minister is being taken out of Article 154(1). We also see that companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares has also been taken out of Article 154(1) by the 20A Bill. These changes are being portrayed as moves by the President and Prime Minister to create an environment conducive to engaging in grand larceny with complete impunity. The removal of the reference to companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares in the 20A is also being portrayed as a situation where all these companies will be placed outside the ambit of the Auditor General. But is that true? It has to be understood that all that the 20A seeks to do with regard to Article 154(1) which deals with the powers of the Auditor General is to restore the status quo ante before the 19th Amendment was enacted – nothing more. Before the 19th Amendment was enacted, the old Article 154(1) was identical to that which is now being proposed in the 20A.
Does this mean that before the 19th Amendment was enacted, the Offices of the President and Prime Minister and companies in which the state owned more than 50% of the shares, were exempt from the scrutiny of the Auditor General? To make any such assertion would be to be unfair to President J.R.Jayewardene and the UNP which promulgated the 1978 Constitution. The President’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office were ALWAYS under the purview of the Auditor General under the 1978 Constitution. The reference to “all departments of Government” in the pre-19th Amendment Article 154(1) includes the Offices of the President and Prime Minister. Any pre-19th Amendment version of the Government Financial Regulations will bear this out. This writer is in possession of an old 1992 copy of the government Financial Regulations in which Appendix 10 on pages 411-43 lists the Presidential Secretariat under ‘A Class’ government departments and the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office under ‘B Class’ departments. The Office of Former Presidents is also categorized as a ‘B Class’ government department.
So all these bodies were always under the purview of the Auditor General. This writer can distinctly recall that there were exchanges between members of the opposition and the government regarding the Auditor General’s reports on the President’s Fund during the previous Rajapaksa government long before the 19th Amendment was enacted. All that the 19th Amendment did was to specify the inclusion of the Offices of the President and Prime Minister under Article 154(1) in a situation where they already came under that provision anyway. This a bit like the 19th Amendment repealing Article 42 of JRJ’s 1978 Constitution, and re-enacting it as Article 33A without changing a single word or comma and then claiming that it was the yahapalana government that made the President responsible to Parliament!
The actual fact was that from the time the 1978 Constitution was first promulgated, the President had always been responsible to Parliament under old Article 42! (It may be stated as an aside that the 20A has sought to undo this piece of chicanery by repealing Article 33A and restoring JRJ’s old Article 42 to its rightful place.) If the yahapalanites fraudulently sought to claim credit for making the President responsible to Parliament by engaging in such blatant manipulation, it’s only to be expected that they would try to do the same when it comes to the changes made to Article 154(1).
Government owned companies
Another criticism being made is that while the 19th Amendment brought companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares within the ambit of the Auditor General, the 20A seeks to abolish that provision. To be sure, the 19th Amendment has included under Article 154(1) “business and other undertakings vested in the Government in which the Government or a public corporation or local authority holds fifty per centum or more of the shares”. The 20A replaces this with the more general phrase “business and other undertakings vested in the Government”. Some members of the government audit service even went to see the Ven. Mahanayake Theras and complained that all the companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares were to be taken out of the ambit of the Auditor General. That too is a false assertion. Companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares refers to business undertakings like Lake House and Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd. The Auditor General did audit the accounts of such companies even in the pre-19th Amendment era.
However both before and after the 19th Amendment, it was not mandatory for any business undertaking in which the government held shares over 50% to use the services of the Auditor General. Article 154 (2) of the Constitution as introduced by the 19th Amendment reads as follows:
“154 (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Article, the Minister in charge of any such public corporation, business or other undertaking or a company referred to in paragraph (1) may, with the concurrence of the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance and in consultation with the Auditor-General, appoint a qualified auditor or auditors to audit the accounts of such public corporation, business or other undertaking or a company referred to in paragraph (1). Where such appointment has been made by the Minister, the Auditor General may, in writing, inform such auditor or auditors that he proposes to utilize his or their services for the performance and discharge of the Auditor-General’s duties and functions in relation to such public corporation, business or other undertaking or a company referred to in paragraph (1) and thereupon such auditor or auditors shall act under the direction and control of the Auditor-General.”
Before the 19th Amendment, the old Article 154(2) read as follows:
“154 (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Article, the Minister in charge of any such public corporation or business or other undertaking may, with the concurrence of the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance, and in consultation with the Auditor-General, appoint a qualified auditor or auditors to audit the accounts of such public corporation or business or other undertaking. Where such appointment has been made by the Minister, the Auditor-General may, in writing, inform such auditor or auditors that he proposes to utilize his or their services for the performance and discharge of the Auditor-General’s duties and functions in relation to such public corporation, business or other undertaking and thereupon such auditor or auditors shall act under the direction and control of the Auditor-General.”
Readers will note that the content of the two provisions are identical. Both before and after the 19th Amendment, the Minister in charge of the subject may appoint an audit firm to audit the accounts of a government owned company. In doing so, he is required to obtain the concurrence of the Minister of finance, and to consult the Auditor General. After an audit company has been appointed to audit the accounts of a mostly government owned company, the Auditor General can write to that audit company and make them perform their duties under the direction of the Auditor General. Nothing has changed in this regard before and after the 19th Amendment. So if anyone claims that the 20th Amendment seeks to take companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares out of the ambit of the Auditor General, that’s a complete falsehood.
Urgent Bills and dual citizenship
One of the changes made by the 19th Amendment was to amend Article 78 so that the time that had to lapse between Gazetting a Bill and presenting it to Parliament was increased from seven days to fourteen days. The 19A also repealed Article 122 which made provision for urgent Bills. Under the provisions of old Article 122, if the Cabinet certifies a Bill as being urgent in the national interest, the provision that a certain number of days has to lapse between the time a Bill is gazetted and presented in Parliament will have no application. The provision of Article 121 which enabled citizens to challenge the constitutionality of a Bill within one week of it being placed on the order paper of Parliament also ceased to apply. When Article 122 was invoked in the case of urgent Bills, the President could write to the Chief Justice requesting him to issue a special determination on the constitutionality of that Bill and the Supreme Court had to make their determination within 24 hours or a period not exceeding three days, as specified by the President.
The 20A proposes to revive the provision for urgent Bills by re-enacting the old Article 122. The 20A also proposes to amend Article 78 so as to shorten the time between the gazetting of a Bill and its introduction in Parliament from fourteen days to seven days as it was in the pre-19th Amendment days. The proposed reintroduction of this provision for urgent Bills by the 20A has also run into much criticism. According to this writer’s recollection, nobody had any real issue with the provision for urgent Bills in Article 122 until for more than three decades until the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was brought forward as an urgent Bill in 2010. The NGO lobby which seeks to hit out at the government with everything they can lay their hands on, raised a hue and cry about the 18th Amendment being introduced as an urgent Bill. However in actual fact, even if the 18th Amendment had been introduced as an ordinary Bill, and gazetted seven days before it was presented in Parliament, as per the provisions of Article 78, the end result would be the same.
Even urgent Bills have to go before the Supreme Court. If there was anything unconstitutional in the 18th Amendment, it would have been shot down by the SC. If it was not shot down by the SC, then it was going to be passed anyway because the 2010 government had a steamroller majority in Parliament. The fact that it was brought as an urgent Bill had little or no impact on how things finally turned out. Yet the provision for urgent Bills itself became a target of those opposed to the Rajapaksas. As a matter of principle, every country should be able to introduce urgent legislation when the need arises. This is a necessary safeguard and a fallback position. The antipathy to the provision for urgent Bills stemmed from the fact that it was used to bring in a constitutional amendment. However the proposed Article 122 in the 20A has taken this into consideration and introduced a totally new clause 122(3) which states that the provisions relating to urgent Bills will not apply to any Bill for the amendment of the Constitution. If the 20A is passed into law, the provision for urgent Bills cannot be used to bring in constitutional amendments.
The 20A also seeks to repeal Article 91(1)(d)(xiii) by which the 19th Amendment added dual citizenship to the list of disqualifications for election to Parliament. Nobody in this country had any issue with dual citizens contesting elections. This became an issue only because the yahapalana government wanted to remove Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksa from politics. To countenance this will mean wholesale surrender to yahapalana thinking. The yahapalana side is trying to pass off one of the most egregious outrages they committed as a virtue. We have heard some people citing the instance of Arjuna Mahendran to justify the ban on dual citizens contesting elections. However, Mahendran was not a dual citizen. He was a Singaporean not holding any kind of Sri Lankan citizenship.
Draft 20A: The Urgent and not so Urgent
by C.A. Chandraprema
The draft of the 20th Amendment has now been Gazetted. Formulating a completely new constitution instead of making interim amendments to the existing one, is undoubtedly what most prefer. However, there are one or two constitutional issues which cannot wait until a new constitution is drafted and have to be attended to immediately. The first such issue pertains to a matter that has gained very little public attention but was exclusively highlighted in this column in July this year. This has to do with the composition of the all-important Constitutional Council which has the final say in making appointments to high state positions such as that of the Attorney General and Judges of the Supreme Court and independent commissions such as the Elections Commission and the Public Services Commission.
The Constitutional Councils appointed in 2015 and 2018 were aberrations because the yahapalana government made up of the UNP and the SLFP and the yahapalana opposition made up of the TNA and the JVP shared all the positions on the Constitutional Council among themselves. The CC established in 2018 is set to continue till October 2021. If this issue is not addressed immediately, the defeated yahapalana opposition will have complete and total control over the process of making appointments to important state positions and independent commissions until October 2021.
According to the 19th Amendment, the Constitutional Council is made up of the Speaker (Chairman) the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, one Member of Parliament appointed by the President, five persons appointed on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of whom two persons shall be Members of Parliament, and one Member of Parliament nominated by agreement of the majority of the Members of Parliament belonging to political parties, other than the respective political parties to which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition belong.
Yahapalana Constitutional Council
Accordingly, the present Constitutional Council is composed of the following persons. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana (Chairman), Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, President’s nominee Mahindananda Aluthgamage, nominees of the PM and the Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, Thalatha Atukorale, Naganathan Selvakumaran and Javed Yusuf. Two seats are vacant. Bimal Ratnayake who represented the smaller political parties in Parliament was defeated at the Parliamentary election and has not been replaced, and Jayantha Dhanapala who resigned from the CC has not been replaced. If we assume for the moment that the two vacancies will not be filled, we see that of the remaining eight members, no less than five are yahapalanites and only the Speaker, the PM and the President’s nominee represent the ruling SLPP led coalition.
R. Sampanthan, Thalatha Atukorale, Naganathan Selvakumaran and Javed Yusuf are on the CC by virtue of the fact that they were appointed in 2018 by the yahapalana government and yahapalana opposition working in collusion. Sampanthan was appointed to the Constitutional Council in April 2019 as a concession granted to him when Mahinda Rajapaksa became the Opposition Leader. Thalatha Athukorale was appointed to the CC earlier in 2018 as one of the five nominees who are appointed jointly by the PM and the Opposition Leader. Now that they have been re-elected to Parliament, they are serving out the remainder of their three year fixed term which they are entitled to under Article 41A(8) of the Constitution. The CC is not a Committee of Parliament but a body that stands outside it even though it is made up mostly of parliamentarians. Members of the Constitutional Council appointed in 2018 who have fixed terms continue to function even if Parliament is dissolved and a new Parliament is convened and the Members of Parliament who survive the election can serve out the remainder of their terms in the new parliament.
The nominee on the CC representing the President was Mahinda Samarasinghe. He too had a fixed three year term under Article 41A(8) and he has been re-elected to Parliament, but he has been replaced by Mahindananda Aluthgamage. The only way such a change can be made would be on the grounds that the President has changed so the individual representing the President on the CC also has to change. However no provision has been made in the Constitution to make such a change and one has to go by the wording of Article 41A(1)(d) which states that the CC has to have one Member of Parliament appointed by the President. By implication, such an appointee cannot be the person who was appointed by the former President.
But there’s no such luck when it comes to the five members of the CC appointed jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, two of whom should be MPs. All these appointees have fixed three year terms under Article 41A(8) and they cease to be members of the CC only if the member resigns or is removed from office on both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition forming an opinion that such member is physically or mentally incapacitated and is unable to function further in office or is convicted by a court of law or if he loses his civic rights. There is no provision for such an appointee to be removed from the CC when the PM and the Opposition Leader changes. Thus Thalatha Athukorale and Sampanthan continue to sit on the CC. The majority of MPs belonging to the smaller political parties in Parliament to which neither the PM nor the Leader of the Opposition belong are yahapalanites and if they nominate a replacement for Bimal Ratnayake, that nominee will be another yahapalanite.
The replacement for Jayantha Dahanapala, since it will have to be made jointly by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, may be a neutral person but it will not help to correct the imbalance in the CC. There will be just three SLPP members and one neutral person as against six yahapalanites. There is the danger that the yahapalanites on the CC will stuff the so called independent commissions full of yahapalanites as they did in 2015 and 2018, thus subverting the people’s mandate of 2019 and 2020. Under Article 41B (4), if the President does not appoint the members of the independent commissions recommended by the Constitutional Council within 14 days, they will be deemed to have been appointed automatically at the end of that period. It takes little imagination to see the immediate danger posed by these provisions.
The Elections Commission will have to be reappointed in November this year, and it’s imperative that the present Constitutional Council be abolished by then. The 20th Amendment seeks to replace the present Constitutional Council with a five member Parliamentary Council made up of the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, a nominee of the Prime Minister, who shall be a Member of Parliament, and a nominee of the Leader of the Opposition, who shall be a Member of Parliament.
The President’s defence responsibilities
Another situation that should not be allowed to persist until a new constitution is drafted is the question whether the President can hold the defence portfolio or not. The drafting of a new constitution may take at least a year given some of the contentious issues like electoral reform that will have to be negotiated. There is no express prohibition in the 19th Amendment on the President holding portfolios. The supposed prohibition is by implication. Before the 19th Amendment, there used to be Article 44(2) in the Constitution which stated that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. That provision was dropped when the 19th Amendment repealed and replaced Chapter Eight of the Constitution. There was also a transitional provision in the form of Section 51 of the 19th Amendment Act which stated that Maithripala Sirisena, so long as he held office as President, may assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment.
The disappearance of old Article 44(2) and Section 51 of the 19th Amendment Act taken together are supposed to imply that the Presidents coming after Maithripala Sirisena cannot hold any portfolio – not even the defence portfolio. Yet as the Constitution stands even after the 19th Amendment, the President is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive, Head of the Government and Head of the Cabinet of Ministers in a situation where Article 4(b) states that the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President. We see that Article 46 of the 1946 Constitution named certain ministries that had to be established such as the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs. Our present Constitution does not name any ministries that have to be established.
According to our Constitution, the executive is made up of the President and the Cabinet and the President appoints the secretaries to all ministries. So long as the President and Cabinet are of one mind, it may be possible to have a defence ministry run by its Secretary without a Gazetted Defence Minister as such. In such an instance, the defence secretary will be acting under the instructions of the President and the Cabinet. The only hitch will be when the defence minister is required by legislation to sign certain documents in his capacity as the minister of defence or the minister in charge of a certain function. But such areas can be assigned to the State Minister of Defence and theoretically, a patchwork arrangement of that sort can be continued until a new constitution is passed.
But it’s a moot question as to whether it is advisable to carry on in such a manner for an extended period of time especially with regard to a matter as important as defence. The SLPP won the presidential and parliamentary elections on a public security and law and order ticket. Minister of Education Prof. G.L.Peiris has been addressing public gatherings arguing for the immediate rectification of this situation which has cast doubts on the President’s ability to hold the defence portfolio. This together with the Constitutional Council issue highlighted earlier can be named as the two issues that cannot wait until a new Constitution is drafted and needs to be resolved as soon as possible. The draft 20th Amendment has sought to resolve the defence ministry issue by restoring the old (pre-19th Amendment) Article 44(2) which stated that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister.
Issues that can wait
In the medium to long term, the most dangerous aspect of the 19th Amendment is the total prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament until the lapse of four and a half years unless a resolution to that effect is passed by Parliament with a two thirds majority. Before the introduction of the 19th Amendment, the old Article 70(1) of the Constitution stated that the President could dissolve Parliament at his discretion, and the only restriction on this power was if the last parliamentary election had been held as a consequence of the President having dissolved Parliament at his discretion, he could not dissolve the next Parliament until the lapse of one year from the date of that Parliamentary election. Moreover, under the old Article 70(1), Parliament could dissolve itself by a resolution passed by a simple majority and if the government cannot get the budget passed after two attempts, the President was mandatorily required to dissolve parliament.
But now, we have a Parliament that cannot be dissolved for four and a half years regardless of anything that may happen within Parliament, even if the government suffers repeated defeats at no confidence motions, if their budgets or statements of government policy are repeatedly defeated, there is no provision to dissolve Parliament to hold fresh elections unless a motion is passed by a two thirds majority in Parliament requesting dissolution. This can lead to a paralysis of the entire government. However, since the present government has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, rectification of this issue can wait till the new constitution is drafted, but since the rectification of this needs only the simple measure of repealing the yahapalana Article 70(1) and restoring the old article 70(1), there is perhaps no harm in doing that through the interim amendment.
One of the provisions in the 19th Amendment that had a serious impact on the yahapalana government was the diarchy that it created by Article 43 which said that the President could at his discretion determine the number of Cabinet Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers, but was required to mandatorily consult the Prime Minister when appointing MPs to those ministerial positions. Thus the Prime Minister became the effective appointing authority of Ministers. Wimal Weerawansa described this as a situation where the President was wearing the shirt and the Prime Minister the trousers with neither of them having a full set of clothes!
For any political party other than the SLPP, this provision would have had serious consequences. But the SLPP will not have any issues so long as the Rajapaksa brothers hold those two positions. The recification of this issue could have waited till the new constitution was drafted, but the 20th Amendment seeks to rectify this by restoring the old Article 44(1) as it stood before the 19th Amendment – which will give the President the power to determine the number of Cabinet Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers and to appoint MPs to those positions after consulting the PM if he deems such consultation to be necessary.
There are other issues too that could have been put off till the new constitution is drafted, such as lifting the yahapalana ban on dual citizens contesting elections, and reducing the age limit for contesting presidential elections. Provision also has been made in the 20th Amendment to restore the urgent Bills procedure whereby if the Cabinet of Ministers certifies a Bill as urgent, the need to gazette the Bill 14 days before it is presented in Parliament can be dispensed with and the President can write to the Chief Justice, requesting a special determination of the Supreme Court as to whether the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution and the Supreme Court is required to deliver their determination within 24 hours or a period not exceeding three days as specified by the President.
One area where the new Article 122 differs from the old (pre-19th Amendment) Article 122 is the inclusion of a new sub-Article 122(3) which specifies that Bills to amend the Constitution cannot be deemed to be urgent Bills. Another significant change to be made by the 20th Amendment is the dropping of the limit of 30 cabinet ministers and 40 non-cabinet ministers and deputy ministers introduced by the 19th Amendment. We see from the foregoing that what the 20th Amendment aims at is restoring the status quo ante, as things stood before the 17th, 18th and 19th Amendments. Some of these obviously can wait until the new constitution is drafted, but the first two issues mentioned in this column obviously need immediate attention. Going by the public pronouncements of members of the Cabinet Sub-committee on constitutional reform, such as Prof. G.L.Peiris, they too have prioritized certain areas such as the defence ministry issue which has wide ramifications for public security, the urgent Bills issue, and the Constitutional Council issue.
Ill-fated 19A to be laid to rest
It has now been officially announced by the government that parts of the 19th Amendment are to be repealed even before a new Constitution is introduced. Our present Constitution has been amended on 18 occasions and not on 19 occasions as the numbering system may lead us to believe. The 12th Amendment is a dud entry and there is no such Amendment in the Constitution. Among the 18 actual amendments that we have had, some are useless like the 6th Amendment which was supposed to stamp out separatism, but has proved to be abysmally ineffective when compared to the piece of legislation it was supposed to modeled on – the 16th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. Some like the 15th Amendment which facilitated the fragmenting of political parties on ethnic and religious lines were counter-productive. Some like the 17th Amendment were ill conceived, confused and even comically tautological, being designed to take powers over high state appointments out of the hands of the politicians and give it to unelected individuals nominated by the political parties in Parliament. But by far the least well thought out Amendment of all was the 19th Amendment.
Ironically, at this moment when its repeal has been placed on the agenda, the biggest problem in the 19th Amendment which had a serious impact on the day to day governance of the country during yahapalana rule, has become largely irrelevant under the Rajapaksas. The problem most often mentioned with regard to the 19th Amendment was the creation of dual centers of power with the Prime Minister also having a share of executive power. During the five years of yahapalana rule, the effect of these provisions of the 19th Amendment were amplified by the fact that the President and Prime Minister were leading their own political parties and working to their own agendas. The way the 19th Amendment bifurcated executive power was by article 43 where the President was to have the power to determine at his discretion the number of Cabinet Ministers and the Ministries and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers, but in the appointment of individual MPs to those ministerial positions the President was mandatorily required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Thus the Prime Minister’s hold on power depended on his role as the effective appointing authority of Ministers. This was all that remained of the attempt made in the original 19th Amendment Bill which had sought to make the Prime Minister the head of the Cabinet of Ministers and to give the Prime Minister the power to determine the number of Cabinet Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to them. Such provisions were struck down by the SC on the grounds that they will require a referendum in addition to the two thirds majority in Parliament. All that remained standing was Article 43(2) which said that the President has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister in appointing MPs as Ministers.
At this moment, because two Rajapaksa brothers hold the positions of President and Prime Minister, and there always has been a fairly well-defined division of labour between them, the country does not feel the effects of this provision. Nobody else other than the Rajapaksa family can run the country effectively while such a bifurcation exists. If the Rajapaksas are defeated at a future election and a different political party captures power, the new President and Prime Minister would be at loggerheads from day one. Ironically the fact that Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were leading two different political parties may have in fact have introduced an element of restraint into the conflict between them because the nomination of MPs as ministers would take place on the basis of formal negotiations between two well defined political parties. However, if the President and Prime Minister were from the same political party, such decisions would be made in a backdrop of intrigue, infighting, and factionalism. Conflict between the number one and number two in the party would not only impact on day to day governance, it could also have serious consequences for the unity of the party concerned as well. What the 19th Amendment did was to make the number one subordinate to the wishes of number two in appointing ministers.
A President without portfolio
Another problem in the 19th Amendment which did not affect Maithripala Sirisena but has dogged President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from the very beginning is the apparent inability of the President to hold any portfolio under the 19th Amendment. We use the term apparent here because there is no express prohibition in the 19th Amendment on the President holding portfolios. The supposed prohibition is by implication. Before the 19th Amendment, there used to be Article 44(2) in the Constitution which stated that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. That provision was dropped when the 19th Amendment repealed and replaced Chapter Eight of the Constitution. There was also a transitional provision in the form of Section 51 of the 19th Amendment Act which stated that notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Constitution, the person holding office as President on the date of commencement of this Act, so long as he holds the office of President may assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment.
The disappearance of the old Article 44(2) and Section 51 of the 19th amendment Act together are taken to imply that the President now cannot hold any portfolio. If someone poses the question, was the intention of the framers of the 19th Amendment the prevention of Presidents after Maithripala Sirisena from holding cabinet portfolios, the answer will be yes. Then the question that arises is, why was that point not specifically spelt out in the 19th Amendment? One would think that if some party wanted to amend the powers of the President they would do it boldly and up front and not try to do it circuitously and by implication. The reason why a prohibition on the President holding portfolios was not expressly included in the 19th Amendment is probably because the Supreme Court would have struck it down just as they struck down so many other explicit provisions which were meant to reduce the powers of the President.
The SC stated in their Determination on the 19th Amendment that “the transfer, relinquishment.or removal of a power attributed to one organ of government to another organ or body would be inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4 of the Constitution. Though Article 4 provides the form and manner of exercise of the sovereignty of the people, the ultimate act or decision of his executive functions must be retained by the President. So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom to such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise the Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President.”
Thus this provision to the effect that the President cannot hold a portfolio has been brought in through the back door by implication by arranging for certain provisions to be silently dropped and inserting transitional clauses which suggest that the President succeeding Maithripala Sirisena cannot hold any portfolio, not even the defence portfolio. Nobody knows how this supposed restriction on the President’s ability to hold protfolios would have fared if challenged in the Supreme Court. There is no dispute about the fact that the framers of the 19th Amendment wanted to ensure that no President after Sirisena should hold any portfolio, but is that intention consistent with the Constitution even as it stands after the 19th Amendment?
Even after the 19 A, the Constitution says in article 30(1) that the President is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and head of the Government and Article 42(3) states that the President shall be a member of the Cabinet of Ministers and shall be the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers. Furthermore, Article 4(b) states that the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President. This leaves many questions hanging in the air. If the President is the head of the Cabinet and a member of the Cabinet, what is his portfolio? The Constitution does not expressly forbid him from holding a portfolio nor does it specify that he has to be a minister without portfolio. If the President is supposed to exercise power over the defence of Sri Lanka, as Article 4 states, can he do it without holding the defence portfolio?
Under the 1946 Constitution it was specifically stated that the head of the government (the PM) would hold the defence portfolio. Since then every head of government up to 2019 has in fact held the defence portfolio. Some speculate that if this issue of the defence portfolio and the Presidency is raised in the Supreme Court, the likelihood is that the SC would hold in favour of the President being empowered to hold the defence portfolio firstly because there is no express provision against the president holding a portfolio and secondly because Article 4 specifically states that the president is to exercise the power of the defence of Sri Lanka.
The most dangerous aspect of the 19th Amendment is the total prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament until the lapse of four and a half years unless a resolution to that effect is passed by Parliament with a two thirds majority – which unlike the issue of whether the President is entitled to hold portfolios, has been explicitly stated in the 19th Amendment. Before the introduction of the 19th Amendment, Article 70 of the Constitution stated that the President could dissolve Parliament at his discretion. The only restriction on this power was if the last parliamentary election had been held as a consequence of the President having dissolved Parliament at his discretion, he could not dissolve the next Parliament until the lapse of one year from the date of that Parliamentary election. This was obviously a safeguard against the repeated dissolution of Parliament by a President. Under the old Article 70, Parliament could dissolve itself by a resolution passed by a simple majority. If the budget is defated the President may dissolve Parliament but it was not mandatory. However if the Budget was defeated for the second time, the president was mandatorily required to dissolve parliament.
All that has been changed by the new Article 70 which was introduced by the 19th Amendment. Now, under the new Article 70 the President cannot dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period of not less than four years and six months from the date appointed for its first meeting, unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members (including those not present). This is undoubtedly the most dangerous provision in the 19th Amendment. What will happen to this country if the President is unable to dissolve parliament or to maintain a majority in Parliament? In 2001, President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament when she knew she was losing her parliamentary majority due to defections. A Parliamentary election was held and a UNP government came into power thus ensuring that the country was not left rudderless. After President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was elected in November 2019, he had to wait only three and a half months before he was able to dissolve Parliament. If he had been forced to wait longer, we would have had a situation where the President of the country did not have a majority in Parliament to govern the country in accordance with the mandate he received.
Unless the present Article 70 is changed, there will be the looming threat of anarchy hanging over this country like the proverbial sword of Damocles. If some say that the President should not have the discretionary power to dissolve Parliament at any time he wishes as was the case under the 1978 Constitution, then at the very least Parliament should have the ability to dissolve itself with a simple majority the same way it passes most laws in the country. Most importantly, there has to be room for Parliament to be dissolved in the event a no confidence motion is lost by a government in power or a government in power loses the budget thus displaying its inability to govern. To have an explicit provision in the Constitution which makes it impossible for Parliament to be dissolved even in such circumstances, is to court disaster. Even if the President is vested with the discretionary power to dissolve Parliament, no President will take such a decision lightly.
During the entire duration of the 1978 Constitution, the President’s power to dissolve parliament was misused in an obvious way only when President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament in 2004. That single instance of abuse was the reason why this prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament was brought in. Firstly, you cannot formulate constitutions on the basis of knee-jerk-reactions. Secondly, even if the President’s powers over the dissolution of Parliament are restricted, the constitution has to be flexible enough to allow the dissolution of Parliament on the basis of events taking place within Parliament such as when governments lose no-confidence motions or are unable to get budgets or statements of government policy passed.
Questionable Constitutional Council
The Constitutional Council is a centerpiece of the 19th Amendment. In fact the Constitutional Council and the so called independent commissions that went with it was the main feature of the 17th Amendment that was passed in 2001. For two decades, the foreign funded NGOs in Sri Lanka have been obsessed with the idea of taking power away from the elected representatives of the people and appropriating it for themselves. The prevailing view being that the elected representatives on both sides of the political divide could not be expected to do the right thing when it came to making important state appointments. When the 19th Amendment was passed, stiff resistance by the UPFA managed to keep the number of non-Parliamentarians on the ten member Constitutional Council at three instead of the originally intended five. Even though the number of outsiders was kept at three, due to the manner in which the yahapalana government and yahapalana opposition colluded with one another in stuffing the CC full of yahapalanites, all the independent commissions and other positions with some rare exceptions were filled with pro-yahapalana appointees and a considerable number of them were from the foreign funded NGO community.
The whole thing was a disaster from the beginning with some of the officials appointed by the Constitutional Council such as the former IGP proving completely unsuited to hold that position. Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole who was appointed to the Elections Commission would certainly have been suited for some other high office but not that of a member of the Elections Commission. The biggest failure of the Constitutional Councils appointed under yahapalana rule in 2015 and 2018 was that they failed to convince the public that they were politically impartial. The whole purpose of the Constitutional Council should be revisited. Above all else the three non-parliamentarians on the CC should be got rid of. A body made up of MPs from both sides of the divide in Parliament headed by the Speaker so as to bring some collegiality into the process of making high appointments, would be a less objectionable arrangement.
The purpose of having so called independent commissions for some purposes should be reconsidered. The Police Commission for example, was set up so that the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of police officers other than the Inspector-General of Police, would be vested in the Commission. However, the Commission was mandatorily required to exercise its powers of promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal in consultation with the Inspector-General of Police. Was this just a case of making more complicated a function that was best left to the head of the institution – the IGP – in a straightforward manner? The police have a function to perform as a collective entity and can they afford to be hamstrung by an external bureaucracy imposed upon the institution?
There is a constitutional requirement that one member of the Elections Commission has to be a retired senior member of the Elections Department. There is a dire need to ensure that the other two members of the Elections Commission are selected only from among senior members of the public service with over 25 years of experience of serving under various governments. Such individuals would be much less inclined to politicize the Elections Commission the way Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole did, at enormous cost to the credibility of the commission he served on. Some sections of the 19A are to be dropped while others are to be retained according to the announcements made by members of the government. Actually, there’s more that needs to be dropped than retained!
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