At a time when England is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare it would not be inappropriate to quote a line from a play that somehow seems to capture the political madness here and the country of my birth. “A plague o’ both your houses” cried Mercutio in his dying moments in Romeo and Juliet [...]


A plague on both your houses


At a time when England is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare it would not be inappropriate to quote a line from a play that somehow seems to capture the political madness here and the country of my birth.
“A plague o’ both your houses” cried Mercutio in his dying moments in Romeo and Juliet as he cursed the houses of the Capulets and the Montagues, two warring families.

There are three kinds of law makers: those elected by the people, those who entered through what is rather oddly called the “national list” and others who were rejected by the people but accepted by party leaders, the unelected representatives of the people.

Mercutio’s curse obviously worked for the lives of the lovers Romeo and Juliet ended tragically.
There is a lot of cursing going on right now in the UK and Sri Lanka but that has more to do with two houses that are thousands of miles apart. These houses are not at war with each other. Rather the warring is going on within them.

The said houses are called august assemblies which by any other name would smell, certainly not sweetly as roses as the Bard wrote. They are called Houses of Parliament where the elected representatives of the people make laws on behalf of the people, so it is said, they represent.

It might at least be said for those who sit in the House of Commons in Westminster that they have been elected by the voters in their respective constituencies at free and fair elections.

The same however cannot be said of the denizens of Diyawanna Oya. There we have at least three kinds of persons parading under the label of law makers. There are those who were elected by the people at an election; there are those who entered the assembly through what is rather oddly called the “national list” only because those elected from the respective parties created the space for them, and still others who were clearly rejected by the people but accepted by party leaders, and who might truly be called the unelected representatives of the people.

Cynics might say that there is little difference between the elected, unelected and the defeated but selected because few of them really represent the people at large though they might well represent the people at home.

Never mind how they got in to the House-front door, back door or window. Now they are in it, their conduct and contribution to the country is what ultimately matters to a constantly belt-tightening people who are compelled to pay for their upkeep and anything they might keep down under.

There are essential differences that distinguish the Houses at Westminster and Diyawanna Oya. Here in London the verbal support for a remark or an argument of a member on his feet is no more than a “Hear, Hear”. An opposition repudiation of it is a jeer couched in typical British understatement.

After all it is so essential to keep the upper lip stiff even though the tongue wags –a much appreciated exercise in anatomical gymnastics that at a circus would have won rounds of applause.

But back in Colombo it is not just the tongues that wag incessantly, possibly with shouts of “pachaya” , “booruwa” and even less complimentary epithets to the surprise of school children in the public galleries who are expected to gain knowledge and wisdom from the intelligent discourse MPs engage in.

Other parts of the anatomy are very much in use as happened a couple of weeks ago when pugilistic power was on display and some of our parliamentarians ended up with aches and pains and one landed in hospital.

Over the years the public has noticed the deterioration not only in the quality of debate (euphemistically speaking) but perhaps more noticeably in standards of conduct which is much more visible in Colombo in recent times than in London where the elected do try to maintain respectability.

Verbal jousting is certainly a part of debate, be it in parliament or outside it. But the recent performance of British Prime Minister David Cameron at PM’s “Question Time” just days before the London mayoral elections shows to what depths even a prime minister can descend when he and his party’s politics are on the line.

Mr. Cameron confronted with a situation where the Downing Street-led campaign in support of the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith was unraveling tried desperately to demonise the Labour candidate Sadiq Khan.

Khan was accused of appearing on the same platform with a muslim cleric who was described as one who professed extremist Islamic views and perceived in Cameronian eyes as being inclined to sympathize with current purveyors of terrorism.
If being on the same platform necessarily means holding the same or similar views which seems to be the conclusion Cameron expects the public to draw it is surely a strange piece of logic even for someone out of Eton.

Coming from a Prime Minister who should be held to much higher standards than the kind of nonsense spouted by Sri Lanka’s constantly wagging tongues such as that of Udaya Gammanpila, Cameron’s resort to racist rhetoric is certainly a dismal and disgusting performance that would have sat more comfortably with those on the extreme right of British politics and not in a multicultural Britain. He was, quite correctly I think, roundly condemned even by some in his own party.

But at least it might be said for the British they do not engage in physical confrontations in the well of the Commons and end up in hospital claiming medical benefits. The same cannot be said of our House of Parliament for the maintenance of which the Sri Lanka people pay an enormous price for no justifiable reasons if one were to judge by the intellectual and ethical qualities of some of those who find representing the people a lucrative vacation than a respectable vocation.

The recent fracas in Parliament when physical rather than intellectual force was employed as argument is a shameless display of the moral quality of some of those who are elected to Parliament as law makers of the nation.
Whether this is a fault of the voters who elect such persons or the political parties that present them as candidates so they may exploit a flawed system to aggrandize on behalf of self, family and friends, let our regular “talking heads” crowing our media argue.
It was only a day or so before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year that the Speaker provided each MP with a draft copy of the Code of Conduct that parliamentarians will, hopefully, follow once approved.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is supposed to have famously said once that our soldiers went to war with a weapon in one hand and a copy of human rights laws in the other.

In the same vein it might be said that our MPs engage in parliamentary give- and- take with the Code of Conduct in one hand and the other ready for all eventualities.

It is this Code of Conduct that says in clause 5.7 that an MP “shall not assault, harass and intimidate another person.” It also says in 5.1.6 “Members shall never undertake any action that would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the Parliament as a whole or its members or of the country generally.”

The recent fracas in Parliament is not the first time this has happened though boisterous and unacceptable behaviour is becoming more frequent now.

In almost 20 years — starting in 1967— of covering parliament as sketch writer of the Daily News and its parliamentary editor I have been witness to one instance of a physical clash. That was way back in the old parliament by the sea and it was between two ministers of the then SLFP government.

Without going into detail let me say it was between Minister S.K.K Sooriayarachchi who I think was MP for Mahara and W.P.G. Ariyadasa who was either Minister of Health or local government and MP for Haputale.

What started almost at the tail end of the day’s sessions ended after the House adjourned and in the lobby outside. I still remember calling it “Ari versus Soori”. But that was the one and only time I saw such an episode until I called it a day after a few years into the Diyawanna Oya era.

Actually there are many other clauses in the code to raise derisive laughter among a public that have fast lost faith in their MPs and therefore in Parliament itself to do the job they were elected to do.

Who knows what diluted form this code will ultimately take once the parliamentarians get their teeth into it.
An additional clause could surely be appended to whatever is left of it. Every night before going to bed an MP must pray to whatever deity he worships, to faithfully uphold all that is pledged to in the good book.

No doubt the public would be doing the same but in greater measure and to as many deities as possible.

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