Oh! Parliament, rise to the grandeur of the past

And so, the political parties have filed their nomination papers for the next Parliament; but alas, we are unlikely to see the Independent MP anymore in our Legislature.

Posters and banners of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main challenger, the retired General Sarath Fonseka have given way to a host of old, not-so-old and new faces. The cities, the towns and the countryside have been bombarded with their mug shots - 7620 candidates vying for 196 seats up for election in addition to hundreds of others vying for 29 National List seats.

Many are bewildered by the 'hidden wealth' that is surfacing - it seems not a lamp post, parapet wall or telephone pole is spared. One would have thought this was an ideal time for the Inland Revenue Department to get its act together, but it probably dares not. There was an election law sometime ago on the amount a candidate could spend on an election; it was calculated on the number of voters he or she had to canvass. No doubt these amounts became unrealistic as inflation soared and the laws couldn't keep pace with rising costs. But today there seems to be 'open season' and the sky is the limit for expenditure.

In a political culture where Rs. 5 million is the minimum expenditure (the average is more than Rs. 10 million) to make some impact on a district-wide electorate, it is therefore not surprising that the calibre of those entering Parliament leaves much to be desired. As we pointed out in this space last week, in the last Parliament (2004-2010) as many as one-third could not fill in their profession or vocation because they had none, and some others indicated bogus professions/vocations, while many others were 'businessmen' whatever that meant.

An old cliché is that people get the rulers they deserve. So be it, but there is a serious need to reflect on the deterioration of standards over the years in what is after all, the institution - the august assembly, as they call it, where the country's laws are framed and where the people's money is disbursed.

On Friday, all parties submitted their National Lists as well. Independent Lanka's first Constitution provided for a set of Appointed MPs. They were meant to give representation to groups, especially minorities or interest groups, which would not otherwise find representation in the national legislature. In the 1978 Constitution, a group of persons called National List MPs were to be accommodated on the same basis. Their role was also to add some gravitas to Parliament. The induction of legal luminaries like K.N. Choksy (by President R. Premadasa) and Lakshman Kadirgamar (by Ms. Sirima Bandaranaike) were classic examples of the right selections, but these were greatly outnumbered by many vagrants and scoundrels who were also brought in through the 'back door' so much so that most of these MPs earned the derogatory nomenclature of 'chit MPs'. Some of them had no scruples about selling their seats for a tidy sum when others wanted to make their way into Parliament.

Students of politics know well that Parliament was once not just an education -- where young minds could widen their horizons by simply listening to the quality of debate, how well-prepared legislators of yore came; but it was also entertaining. Parliament was never a dull place. There was theatre -- and theatrics galore. There was humour, it was in fact the finest show in town when in session. A read of the old Hansards, the official record of Parliament, provides one with an insight into those proceedings.

On the other hand, here are some from the Hansard of the last Parliament;

Hon. Y.M. Navaratna Banda: This is not the place to raise your cloth.
Hon. S.K. Subasinghe: Don't do it here - what you did at the police station
Hon. Y.M. Navaratna Banda: Sit down Minister, this is not the place to
lift your cloth… you are wearing the National dress.
Hon. S.K. Subasinghe: Just shut up and wait…..
(Hansard - 23 Sept. 2009)

Hon. Palitha Range Bandara: Here's morality and here are respectable
gentlemen. They release a murderer of women on International
Women's Day with a Presidential pardon. This is the 'chintanaya' and
they are smarting when we say these things and jump up like a jack in
the box….. (disturbance). Hanumantha, what do you know? You only
know to set fire to petrol sheds. You got through Grade 8 only at Royal,
bring your SSC certificate if you can. I say, Mahindananda, it is useless
wearing a tie and coat. Go to Royal and bring your OL certificate with
out shouting and licking boots.
(Hansard -11 November, 2009)

Hon. A.P. Jagath Pushpakumara: How did Raj Rajaratnam's money end up in a UNP MPs' bank account? You speak about corruption without a sheet of paper. It doesn't feel as good as scrubbing your leader's back when bathing in the Mahaweli river at Wasgamuwa, noh;
(Hansard - 21 October, 2009).

These are just vignettes but it was the general theme of the debates in Parliament. The so-called dignity of the House was called into question many a time. And this performance is right before the eyes of impressionable schoolchildren who come and sit in the public galleries of Parliament listening to their leaders speak like this.

Political parties are largely to blame for this state of affairs. One could say that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MPs were arguably the best conducted of them all. They were essentially angry men but what they lacked in humour, they amply compensated with the quality of debate. They study the Order Paper (the agenda), they study bills and their contributions are studied ones. With a few exceptions, the others fail miserably in this task.

The elected representatives of the people were not trained on the job, and only a few took their duties as the country's legislators seriously. Very few shone as 'parliamentarians' and one can only hope that things will not get any worse with those who are now scrambling to get elected.

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