The winter of our discontent
These times are, in truth, the 'winter of our discontent.' Never has reality contrasted in a more surreal manner with theory - and never have we felt so helpless about the contrast. The down surge has no political colourings, indeed, posturings by senior figures of both the major parties have that same air of desperate unreality and begs the same question; can these things be actually happening when the fate of this country and its people is so obviously in issue? If the continuing fracas over the Development Lotteries Board was not sufficient to demonstrate this point, more outstanding examples of this disparity are manifest in this week's happenings.

In the first instance, we have had an upsurge of governing party politicians involved in public brawls, the most recent of which was the unsavoury incident this week when a parliamentarian from the South, on a personal high with something more than natural good spirits, fired in the air during a wedding reception at one of the city's premier hotels.

Rightly, this act should have been condemned in the roundest terms by his party seniors. Instead, what we had were weak disclaimers from none other than the Government's Interior Affairs Minister John Amaratunga who preferred to say that this act had only been in self defence and, in any case no one had been hurt. Though this outrageous reaction was mitigated somewhat by the tougher stand taken by General Secretary of the United National Party, Senerath Kapukotuwa, the damage control was insufficient. After all, these antics had not been the first of their kind but had been preceded by equally serious incidents including the storming of a police station by another member of parliament.

To add the required measure of further incredulity to the process, we had a political killing of an opposition provincial councillor in the heart of Colombo, in these supposedly non-war times, accompanied by an equally ridiculous debate on whether or not he had been killed in a high security zone.

As contrasted to this reality, we had this week's announcement by the government that a Code of Conduct is being legislated for parliamentarians. The Code, which has had significant civil society involvement through the Organisation of Professional Associations, has exhortatory phrases relating to public duties and Selflessness in Personal Conduct for parliamentarians that appear to belong to a vastly better world than that in which we presently find ourselves in.

Pathetically, it reminds parliamentarians of the obligations imposed on them by existing law and prescribes penalties ranging from reprimand to one year suspension/ revocation of privileges. At its severest, the findings of an Ethics Committee appointed under the law are reported to the relevant authorities for legal action.

While this is all well and salutary, are we really supposed to believe that existing parties in this country do not have existing fair procedures and processes (as opposed to summary dismissals which could be clearly challenged in court) laid down for the discipline of its MPs for aberrant behaviour?

History has demonstrated that both the major parties have acted against their own members only for breaches of political faith rather than pure and simple violation of the law. This is very true for the People's Alliance as well, notwithstanding the typical and sanctimoniously opportunistic statements of their spokesman Sarath Amunugama this week that the government has failed miserably in its upholding of law and order. Before a lapse of memory becomes more acute, the People's Alliance should be reminded in this context of the unchecked breaches of discipline by its party men and women when in power, a list of which would not suffice the paper on which this column is written.
What this country needs to see is actual deterrent party action against errant elected representatives and not more and more laws, more and more Codes and more and more committees.

Towards that end, it would also help immeasurably if the Minister in charge of law and order is more circumspect about the statements that he makes regarding parliamentarians who violate basic standards of good conduct and behaviour. In the alternative, the portfolios that he bears, including that of Minister of Christian Affairs, could be switched for something less onerous such as Coast Conservation.

On a more esoteric plane than drunken parliamentarians, we also had an unpleasant reminder of how flawed our rule of law processes are, in ongoing protests by the Trade Federation of Customs, Excise and Inland Revenue Department regarding the Inland Revenue (Special Provisions) law giving amnesty for tax defaulters. Seventeen member unions, all part of the Federation, were protesting on the basis that they had not been consulted on the law by the Finance Ministry, prior to it being passed.

In a parallel development on the same matter, arguments on behalf of a citizen in the Supreme Court during the week contended that the amnesty law had not been validly passed by Parliament due to fundamental departures from constitutional safeguards and procedures stipulated in the enacting of laws. Particularly, it was pointed out that though the Bill in that regard was presented by the Finance Minister to Parliament on the 1st of January, 2003, copies of the same were available at the Government Publications Bureau only more than a month later and that too, in limited numbers.
This had effectively prevented the citizens in this country from apprising themselves of the exact contents of the law which has far reaching impact on separation of powers between President and Parliament and not only with regard to tax amnesties and of challenging the Bill within the one week period of it being put on the Order Paper of Parliament as constitutionally mandated.

The exact question as to whether the Court has jurisdiction to consider the challenge to the law given that it has the certification of the Speaker placed upon it in the context of the constitutional prohibition prescribing that such a certification will transform a Bill into law, the validity of which cannot be inquired into, pronounced upon or called into question by any court, is now pending for determination.

In issue are some ingenious arguments that base themselves on the contention that an Act can only be valid when it has been passed according to the existing rules of law as to manner and form and procedure, in regard to which this column does not comment since the matter is before court.

However, it is self evident that recourse to such constitutional gymnastics would not have been necessary if basic rules of governance had been observed. These rules still remain to be prescribed despite past equally unpleasant experiences where citizens had been unable to lay their hands on proposed bills before they were passed by Parliament. For instance, the government can stipulate that all bills, before being put on the Order Paper of Parliament (bringing into law the one week rule with regard to challenge) should be available at the Publications Bureau at least two weeks before, in order that the public may reasonably apprise themselves of the proposed laws by which they would be governed. This simple safeguard is however, still not observed.

Democracy in this country has rapidly come to be not government by the people and for the people but rather a process of a deft sleight of hand for the fools and by the fools. It is time and more that we rid ourselves of this obsession with laws and doctrines and stick to a few simple ground rules based on decency and good sense in our governance processes, whether it is with regard to law and order, the passing of bills or the management of a lotteries board.

What was needed meanwhile to complete this framework of surreality was the rejecting by the LTTE of the interim authority proposed by the Government, predictable though it was. At week-end, we had this factor realised as well. Perhaps the gods have, in actual fact, truly cursed this isle.

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