Columns - Lobby

Moves to change PR system make little headway

By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

The Government admits that the Proportional Representation (PR) system used in electing members to Parliament, Provincial Councils and local authorities should be changed. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) which introduced the system by way of the 1978 Constitution too now thinks the system should be amended.

However the first attempt to change the system at local government level made little headway in Parliament last week when the government said it would have to postpone a vote on the two related bills even though the UNP made a valiant but vain attempt to have them passed and get them implemented before the upcoming LG polls scheduled for March.

The two bills, the Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Bill and the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill were introduced by Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils A.L.M.Athaullah who after expressing the need to change the existing system of elections said that the bills would not be taken up for a vote as time was needed to consider some amendments to them.

The Minister’s announcement that the vote would be postponed was met with anger by UNP Gampaha District MP Joseph Michael Perera who said the Government was going back on its word given at a closed door party leaders meeting held the previous day to get the bills passed on Tuesday. “It’s true the UNP introduced the system but now we also agree that it needs to be changed. The government promised to pass the bills, today but is now backtracking because it is afraid to face the people under a new system of voting,” the UNP MP said.

The proposed changes to the election law seek to introduce a mixed system of electing members to local authorities under both the first-past-the –post (Westminster System) and the existing PR system. The Bills also empower the Minister of Local Government to appoint a National Delimitation Committee to re-draw the boundaries of the existing local bodies.

One reason given by Minister Athaulla for postponing the bills was that even if they are approved now, it would not be possible to implement them before the up coming elections as the work of the Delimitation Committee would take at least four months to complete.

However, UNP MP Joseph Michael Perera argued, quite correctly, that if the bills are passed now, the Committee could be appointed and could begin work so that the new system would be ready to be implemented even in a few years time.

DNA parliamentarian Anura Dissanyaka welcomed the postponement of the vote on the bills saying the minister had not clarified how the new laws would work. “There is confusion about these amendments. The Minister has not given a proper explanation about them,” Mr.Dissanayaka charged.

Minister of National Languages and Social Integration Vasudeva Nannayakkara an obvious beneficiary of the PR system but also one of its strongest critics said that this “rubbish” system of election was introduced by the UNP and now the government was trying to change it. “While we agree the system must be changed, we also have to look at the practical difficulties in bringing about these changes which will take time to resolve,” he said. “We are the ones who brought the bride here but the UNP seems to be in a big hurry to take her away,” he chided.

While the talk of changing the election system ended there, a more disturbing issue came up in the House with Minister of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development Douglas Devananda raising concern about the growing incidents of violence in the Jaffna peninsula in the past few weeks. ‘There is a fear psychosis growing among the people of Jaffna again. There are incidents which are disrupting the tranquility of the life that people have begun to enjoy since the war ended,” he stated.

Strangely it was a Cabinet Minister who raised the issue of incidents of violence in the north while membersof the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) raised it a day later. The Party’s Jaffna district MP Mavai Senathiraja in a special statement to the House read out a list of incidents of abductions, rape and murders that he said have taken place in the area and alleged none of these had been properly investigated nor the culprits brought to book.

The deteriorating situation in Jaffna also prompted Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to write to Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa requesting him to lead a joint government-opposition parliamentary delegation to Jaffna to study the situation first hand. A full day debate on the issue will be taken up in parliament on January 20 when the House next meets.

An adjournment debate moved by the UNP with regard to the appointment of ten senior ministers by President Mahinda Rajapaksa too was debated on Friday after Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakkody ruled that the debate would go ahead only after the motion was amended in such a manner that the personal conduct of the President was not questioned in the House.

The amendment to the motion came after the government objected to it. The House had to be suspended for nearly an hour due to heated arguments for and against the motion.

Only four of the ten senior members spoke during the debate-- D.E.W.Gunasekeara, Tissa Vitharana, Athauda Seneviratna, and Piyasena Gamage. Former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka , now Minister (Senior) for Good Governance and Infrastructure who has publicly said senior ministers have been denied proper facilities chose not to speak. Neither did A.H.M.Fowzie, P.Dayaratna, Sarath Amunugama, S.B.Nawinna and Milroy Fernando.

It’s not surprising that they chose to remain silent given the fact that the secretaries to these ministers were only appointed a day before the debate was to take place while there remained confusion about the kind of responsibilities the ‘senior’ ministers have been entrusted with.

Debate on senior ministers

John Amaratunga - Chief Opposition Whip: “The Government has appointed ten senior ministers. Such ministers cannot be constitutionally appointed and neither can they sit in the Cabinet as it is illegal. These are hollow positions. The Prime Minister should inform the House on behalf of the President how these senior ministers are expected to discharge their duties with neither administrative nor operational facilities.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe - Opposition Leader: “The secretariat created for senior ministers came under the Presidential Secretariat and the monies for this had been allocated from the vote of the President.
“If a senior minister wants petrol he has to go to the President’s office. Even a Samurdhi officer has more powers than they. These appointments are an insult to senior members of Parliament. Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka has been in Parliament since 1960.

He was also the Prime Minister and today he is nowhere. Similarly, some other seniors have been treated unfairly. I bumped into senior minister recently and asked him how he was doing. He replied that he was like the Hambantota harbour. “There are no ships at Hambantota and here I have no work,” he said to me. They have been locked up in the “Vishramapaya” without any work and the President is acting as the jailor. It’s better to be like K.P. One has more facilities.”

Athauda Seneviratna - Minister (Senior) for Rural
Affairs: “All the ministers have been appointed by the President under Article 44 (1) of the Constitution. Cabinet Ministers and senior ministers too have been appointed under the powers vested in him under this section.

The contention of the opposition that these are illegal appointments is a lie aimed at deceiving and misleading the people. We have got offices and we have been given secretaries and staff. I have held discussions with ten ministers already as part of my work. There have been Ministers without Portfolios before. The UNP appointed district and state ministers. The President has the power to appoint ministers and call them by any name. Don’t shed crocodile tears for us. Where is MP Sajith Premadasa and his group today? They are not here. Whatever happens none of us will shift a hairs breadth away from the government.”

Vijitha Herath -DNA MP: “The senior ministers are forced to defend their appointments in Parliament so that they would not lose these portfolios as well. Minister Seneviratne spoke here as if he was suffering from an epileptic fit. At least he will be spared his “senior” portfolio now. When the war was going on the government said they have to give every person who crosses over from the UNP a ministerial post as they were needed to strengthen the government. But now the war has ended and despite promises to restrict the Cabinet to 30 it has not happened. Now there are 95 in the Cabinet and the biggest joke is the appointment of ten senior ministers. They have been stripped of whatever self respect they had. At least give them a front row seat in Parliament.”

Piyasena Gamage - Minister (Senior) of Natural
Resources: “The Opposition is using our appointments to make political capital. The Opposition Leader spoke of such appointments in countries like Canada and Indonesia so he is aware such things happen in other countries. It is a new concept in our country. The work of a senior minister is to assist the ministries under his purview to work more efficiently. The opposition wants to use this as a trump card at the upcoming poll but that will not succeed.”

Wijedasa Rajapaksa -UNP MP: “In the past 20 to 30 years the word “amathikama” (ministership) has become one of the most abhorred words by the public. That is the political culture of our country unfortunately. We have to now decide if we are going to stagnate here or move forward. In the constitution we have no restriction imposed on the number of ministers that can be appointed. It’s time for us to consider such an amendment to the constitution. We are not aware of the criteria on which these senior ministers were appointed. Is age the criteria or some other qualification, the government must tell the people clearly.”

D.E.W.Gunasekera: Minister
(Senior) Human Resources: “The first jumbo Cabinet in the country was appointed under President J.R.Jayewardene. There were 99 ministers including state ministers, non- cabinet ministers, district ministers and project ministers. I am the minister in charge of human resources and I have met with personnel from several ministries including education and higher education. We are working to make the services given to the public more productive and efficient.

Nimal Siripala De Silva: Leader of the House and Minister of Irrigation: The concept of senior ministers is a new one initiated by the President. This is to give the senior members the authority to co-ordinate activities in ministries. The UNP for a long time has been saying there are too many ministers, too many perks and today they are saying give more facilities to senior ministers. This is double talk. This is another “pus wedilla “by the opposition which is aiming at winning some votes at the up-coming local government elections.

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