That conscience Bill coming again
Proposed constitu tional amendments announced by the United National Front Government this week has, in its forefront, that old Conscience Bill again together with amendments dividing Parliament into twenty Executive Committees on the lines of what transpired under the Donoughmore Constitution (1931-1948) and possibly, amendments restraining powers vested in the Executive Presidency.

While the latter amendments are crucial in their own way, the proposed Conscience Bill is of primary importance, given the crucial need to bring back some measure of individual accountability for members of parliament. Though its provisions have not been fully elaborated upon as yet, it will reportedly allow an MP to act according to his or her conscience on "national issues" and not have to pay the process of forfeiting the parliamentary seat. It is thereby hoped to build a national consensus on matters of national importance, inclusive of but not limited to a solution to the ethnic problem, something this country needs as a matter of utmost importance.

In that sense, the proposed Bill appears to differ both from the strategy of protecting "selected cross-overs" which was limited to the fifth parliament by President J.R. Jayewardene and a proposed Conscience Bill on similar lines, suggested by the People's Alliance in 2000. In the present Bill proposed by the United Front Government, the ability to vote according to conscience is not limited to opportunistic cross overs only from the opposition to the government but vice versa as well. If, as reported, this is indeed correct, then the United Front Government deserves no small praise for bringing in constitutional amendments, which may appear advantageous at the moment but could undoubtedly pose some political risk in the future. The fact that, nonetheless, it has decided to take this risk on, augurs well for the new political culture that it has promised to build. If however, this stand is reneged on and opportunistic strategies are indulged in, merely in order to bring Opposition members over to the government benches, history would be a sure pointer as to its negative long term consequences, irrespective of short term political gain.

Writing on the Cross Over Bill proposed haphazardly by the People's Alliance in 2000, this column pointed out the manner in which the reworking of a typically opportunistic JRJ strategy could lead to a greater deterioration of parliamentary democracy. Then, it was utilised in order to enable opposition members of parliament to cross over to the government and was worked in a shamelessly partisan manner. Thus, a member who was expelled from the party had the option of appealing to the Supreme Court or a Select Committee of Parliament.

The deliberations of these Select Committees on whom the majority were from the government were wholly dependant on whether the individual crossover in question was beneficial to the government or not. Thus, TULF member C. Rajadurai who crossed over to the Government from the TULF continued to sit in Parliament until its dissolution in December 1988. On the other hand, when Dr Neville Fernando of the UNP was expelled, he found himself out of Parliament within the short space of one month. A similar fate befell former UNP Minister of Finance Ronnie de Mel when he resigned from the UNP and joined the SLFP in August 1988. A Select Committee reported in less than a month that he should be expelled from Parliament and a resolution of expulsion was about to be introduced when he resigned his seat in September 1988. This strategy of protecting "selected cross-overs" was limited to the fifth parliament by President J.R. Jayewardene precisely for these self-same politically opportunistic reasons.

From the opposite spectrum, a genuine "Conscience Bill" ought to really embody particular features. Essentially one of the greatest problems identified with the present Constitution had been the inability of party members to resign and opt for another parliamentary grouping without suffering loss of seat. It was the architect of the constitutional document previous to the 1978 Constitution, Colvin R. de Silva who summed it up most succinctly. " All over the world, parliamentarians are supposed to show their independence by crossing the floor. Here, you can't cross the floor or if you cross it, it must be because you are cross with yourself because you end up outside. Now, is this the kind of parliament you should have? How will that be an instrument of any kind of democracy, leaving aside pluralistic democracy? What kind of instrument and what kind of policies and what in heaven's name will that parliament be doing?"

Throughout the years, we have seen truly in "heaven's name" what this has led to. The dominance of party leadership over its members has been complete, up to a point where the slightest dissent from party positions have been ruthlessly dealt with. Quite apart from the numerous instances of open and vociferous defiance of the party whip, one of the most glaring examples in this respect was in 1987 (under the then UNP administration) when the two hapless Members of Parliament for Kamburupitiya and Hakmana were summarily expelled merely for abstaining from voting on the Thirteenth Amendment. The upholding of this summary form of party discipline in certain decisions of the Supreme Court also tended to reinforce the current thinking that the will of the party prevails in the most authoritarian manner over the will of the individual party member.

It was for these reasons that particularly from the eighties, revision of the present constitutional provisions relating to crossing over and expulsion was strongly lobbied for. The questions appeared to be extraordinarily simple; Should defiance of the party whip and consequent expulsion from the party necessarily stipulate the automatic loss of his or her seat? Or should there be circumstances where the member could retain his or her seat notwithstanding the above? Some argued that it might be necessary to distinguish between the circumstances that are in issue before expulsion automatically involves loss of seat in Parliament.

Thus, if a member of the government parliamentary group for example, were to vote against the annual Appropriation Bill or if such a member were to vote in favour of a motion of no confidence moved against the Government by the Opposition, expulsion from the party might arguably involve losing the Parliamentary seat as well. Such a member would, of course, be able to appeal to the Supreme Court on the basis that his expulsion was unfair or unjust. However, in instances involving a very definite issue of individual conscience such as in voting against the extension of the emergency, expulsion from the party ought not to result in automatic loss of Parliamentary authority as well. These were only some of the ideas advanced in wide ranging discussions on the need to ensure that party control over a Member of Parliament is relaxed from its present rigidity.

Sri Lanka, of course, had witnessed a gentler past a long, long time ago, when members opted to and were allowed to disagree on policies within the party as opposed to expulsion or crossing the floor purely for individual personal gain. Thus in particular, the role of Mr Dudley Senanayake and Mr R.G. Senanayake during the Prime Ministership of Sir John Kotelewela where both continued to be highly critical observers of policies followed by their party leader. Similarly, when members of the Communist Party voted against the Criminal Justice Commission Bill implemented by a Government in which it was a constituent member. Other such instances are legion. All this was, of course, in a vastly more honourable political era.

As far as this proposed Conscience Bill is concerned, we still have to see what it looks like. We hope that policy makers would present the Bill to the public and call for public representations prior to it being brought before the House. In what other way, after all, could citizens in this country become stakeholders in the process of governance?

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