The country has been witnessing the theatrical spectacle these days of parliamentarians and lesser mortals jumping from one side to the other of the political divide. Almost all parties, big and small, have been hit by this crossover syndrome. This circus has its roots, by an unhappy co-incidence with the case of Amir Ali vs. Sri [...]


End this circus of crossovers


The country has been witnessing the theatrical spectacle these days of parliamentarians and lesser mortals jumping from one side to the other of the political divide. Almost all parties, big and small, have been hit by this crossover syndrome. This circus has its roots, by an unhappy co-incidence with the case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006). It was in this case that the Supreme Court tipped the scales in favour of an expelled MP over a party constitution, and opened the flood gates for crossovers.

Earlier decisions by the Supreme Court, particularly after the expulsion of Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali from the UNP in 1993, held that the Constitution of the Republic did not easily permit an MP to cross the floor and continue as an MP. The court also held that to ensure the fundamental rights of an elected representative of the people, the party needed to have a proper inquiry before expelling an MP. One of the judges of that court, however, held by way of Obiter Dicta (in a passing reference) that there must also be “overwhelming reasons” and that an expulsion must be for the public good. This dictum was later expanded in the Amir Ali case to make it virtually impossible for a political party to expel a member. The primacy of the party constitution was laid to rest. Later cases went this same way.

The issue has now turned full circle and this week, the Hon. Amir Ali, having only just accepted a Nominated MPship from the UPFA, a fortnight later crossed over to the Opposition. This crazy scenario takes place regularly in the legislature and at local government level. In recent years, the voters had to put up with this madness. There were MPs de jure in the Opposition parliamentary group but were sitting de facto in the Government Cabinet. It made a mockery of the country’s Constitution and of party politics.

But it is no joke for the voter whom these same politicians are running behind today, and with the ever-present possibility that they can jump sides at any given time with the people’s vote. The President says his Government is like the saloon door — anyone is welcome to enter or leave. As long as the boot was on one foot – that is when Opposition MPs were crossing over to the Government benches — it was fine for the ruling party. Now that boot is on the other foot also. The crossovers these days are not entirely on issues of “principle”. The issue begs the question why amending legislation is not in place to rectify the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law.

It has been said by MPs that they have the right to cross over, acting on their judgment and conscience, but what of the multitude of voters who sent each of them to be their representative in Parliament or in the various elected councils? The crucial election on January 8 is for one man to be the country’s chief executive. Is not the entire political firmament blurred by the antics of the many crossovers that have taken place?

The ultimate test must surely be to give legitimacy to the will of the people. And if the Republic’s Constitution says the people are sovereign, should not the mockery of crossovers that we have seen in recent weeks be remedied?

Fortune favours those who bare
Anyone wanting to check the assets and liabilities of Narendra Modi or those in the Union Council of Ministers has only to browse the official website of the Indian Prime Minister’s Office. Since they were published in October, these declarations have been openly dissected, analysed and circulated.

It was reported, for example, that 17 out of 22 Indian Cabinet members had possessions worth at least ten million Indian rupees. The richest as well as those with the least assets became widely known. And using the Right to Information Act (RTI), journalists have routinely acquired and disclosed the declarations of other Indian officials in the public interest.

The situation differs starkly in Sri Lanka. This country has yet to see a civilised discussion on the assets and liabilities of public officials and politicians based on authentic information. Where the wealth of elected representatives is concerned, there is often speculation, exaggeration and mudslinging. There are also assumptions made on circumstantial evidence of increasing worth — flashier cars, even helicopters, Cartier watches, off-shore bank accounts, properties abroad and so on. But there has been little supporting documentation.

Sri Lanka shamefully has neither RTI legislation nor a Freedom of Information Act. Still, the law governing the declaration of assets and liabilities does empower any member of the public to view and obtain these documents for a fee. This “concession” is diluted by a secrecy clause that preempts a person who gains access to a declaration under the terms of the law from revealing any of its contents. It even forestalls such person from saying he or she has seen the document.

This technically means that every person who wants access to a declaration of assets and liabilities must apply individually for it — something that will not happen. The provision, therefore, dampens any public interest objective the law might have envisaged. Opinion is divided on whether the contents of assets and liabilities documents can be disclosed if released voluntarily. Some experts believe nothing in the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act prevents it. But others, including legal counsel for the New Democratic Front’s Maithripala Sirisena, fear that even a voluntary disclosure of one’s assets and liabilities will leave one open to a challenge.

In recent times, asset declarations have indeed been deployed as weapons against those that run afoul of the administration. As long as you are in the good books, all’s well. The Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption — which is comatose in several cases related to politicians (particularly ruling party ministers or MPs) — jolted awake in 2013 to file charges at the speed of greased lightning against Chief Justice 43 Shirani Bandaranayake for alleged non-declaration of certain assets. Perhaps it was fear of a similar fate befalling them that had prompted each of the 19 candidates at the 2015 presidential election — including incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa — to declare their assets and liabilities as required by law. But the Elections Commissioner has blocked access to the documents till after the presidential poll. His decision has no basis in law.

The stakes are certainly high in this election. The potential for the abuse or misuse of personal information is great. But in countries like Sri Lanka and India, where bribery and corruption are rampant, it is vital for the citizenry to know just how much candidates are worth before an election. It would help them track the ebb and flow of their fortunes once they assume power and to raise questions about any unusual trends. The law must be changed to make it easier for the public to access such information.

Politicians must welcome such transparency. They keep claiming they have nothing to hide. It’s time they put their money where their mouths are.

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