It’s the sacred temple where a people’s sovereignty lies enshrined. The supreme edifice of a secular democratic state. The gilded pagoda from whence the people’s power emanates. The fountain from which all legal enactments spring. The podium where national issues are debated discussed and distilled. The law factory and the talking shop, packed into a [...]


Money down the babbling brook by the banks of the Diyawanna

What price a month in the life of the talking shop?

It’s the sacred temple where a people’s sovereignty lies enshrined. The supreme edifice of a secular democratic state. The gilded pagoda from whence the people’s power emanates. The fountain from which all legal enactments spring. The podium where national issues are debated discussed and distilled. The law factory and the talking shop, packed into a one stop complex.

The Bastion of Democracy: Time to make Parliament debates more meaningful and relevant to meet the nation's needs

And, as far as talking shops go these days, it does so admirably. The only problem is that instead of delving into national issues and making the public heartbeat distinctly heard the talk is only about its own members and their own conduct and behaviour mixed with their own parochial interests.

At this talking shop down by the Diyawanna banks, the only items on display and abundantly available even during a national flood disaster are empty mugs depicting its own members pictures, most of them invariably emblazoned with the designer MR trademark at the bottom. And it comes at a great price which the public is expected to brook without murmur. But does it have any value?

Ever since last January’s presidential election and the elevation of the ‘Bring back Mahinda’ campaign by members of the previous regime many of them facing corruption charges from which they had been shielded in the halcyon days of the Rajapaksa presidency, the nation has seen the gradual descent of Parliament to finally end up in the well of a people’s contempt.
Last year while Maithripala Sirisena was valiantly trying to repeal the draconian 18th Amendment to the Constitution which further reduced parliament’s power whilst enhancing the executive president’s dictatorial fiat and his right to contest the presidency without limit, a group of UPFA MPs numbering over 100 denigrated the morning dignity of the House by turning Parliament into a den of high jinks by night.

On that unprecedented sleep-over night of April 20th, their order paper for their midnight feast held to protest the Bribery Chief summoning Mahinda Rajapaksa for questioning, was filled with wine and song and dance with fried and devilled chicken to spice up the 23 hour orgy which ended only at 9.30 am the following morn when their snoring slumber was disturbed by the parliament staff on the morning shift.

With the august dignity of Parliament so traduced in the dust, things haven’t improved much, now have they? If at all it has only got worse.

Take this month for instance.
MAY 3: As a general rule, parliament meets twice a month. The first session begins on first Tuesday and the second on the third Tuesday of the month. This month Parliament met on Tuesday the 3rd at 1pm. The main and only issue that troubled the joint opposition mind was the government’s decision to replace the military security guards given to Mahinda Rajapaksa and to replace it with police commandos as given to all VIP’s including President Sirisena.

When the Mahinda mouth-speak Dinesh Gunawardena raised the issue which Rajapaksa should have asked had he been present in the House, and the Prime Minister had given due answer and passed the baton with the speaker’s permission to Sarath Fonseka to further amplify on the persuasive reasons behind the move, members of the joint opposition storm the well of the House and violence breaks out. Fisticuffs reign in a free for all in the well. New UNP MP Sandith Samarasinghe, whilst trying to break up the brawl, is thrown to the ground, kicked and trampled, just as his inherited elephants at Elephant Bath in Randeniya, Kegalle are sometimes wont to do when in musth. He is hospitalized.

The speaker condemns the incident, appoints a committee to inquire into it and then adjourns the House. The time is 3pm. Within two hours parliamentary business for the day has been done, thanks to some of the members resorting to violence.

MAY 4: The following day May 4th the Speaker tells the House that the preliminary report into the violent incident has been handed over to him and that the report would be discussed at the party leaders’ meeting the next day and that the necessary action will be taken to ensure discipline is maintained in the House. With the previous day’s fracas heat still warming the chamber and the backbench talk still mumbling over the incident, the Microfinance Bill which consists of new laws on licensing, regulating and supervision of companies carrying out microfinance business, is then debated and passed in the House.

MAY 5: The Speaker refers to the May 3rd violence in the well of the House and refers to the report on the incident issued by the appointed committee. He announces the names of two MPs one from the UNP and one from the joint opposition. With the scales of justice thus equally balancef, the two MPs named are UNP MP the Palitha Thevarapperuma and the joint opposition UPFA MP Prasanna Ranaweera. The UNP MP Thevarapperuma, mind you, is also the Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs. The punishment for throwing punches in the well of the House is suspension from Parliament for one week.

A Supplementary sum of Rs.55 million is then taken up for debate. The Chief opposition Whip calls for a vote by division. Thereafter it is announced to the House that the estimate has been passed with 33 in favor; 31 against. The Speaker, the Dep. Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committee are not present at the time the vote is taken. In their absence, a UNP MP Lucky Jayewardene acts as the presiding officer.

After the House has been adjourned, some MPs of the joint opposition begin to entertain doubts as to whether the counting had been done properly. To confirm the arithmetic, they urge the Secretary General of Parliament, the chief executive officer of Parliament whose constitutional role is to advice the Speaker and other Presiding Officers on matters relating to Parliamentary procedure, constitutionality of Bills, Standing Orders, privileges and other matters, to scrutinize CCTV footage in the manner of police detectives investigating crimes to determine whether there had been a cock up in the counting.

After several recounts, the Secretary General of Parliament and political party representatives agree that there had been 31 votes each for and against the supplementary estimate. Whether right or wrong, the final tally for the day reveals that only 62 MPS were present at voting time in Parliament out of a total of 225. The rest — all 163 of them — missing from action.

Later in the day, the Speaker tells a daily newspaper that it was the responsibility of party leaders to ensure the participation of their members in parliamentary proceedings and that if members played truant and skipped attendance, party leaders should take action against them. As far as the draft code of conduct he had given all MPs on April 11th which stresses the importance of attendance, to read, make their suggestions and return to him before the 25th of last month, only 2 out of 225 had responded.
MAY 6: Once again the Speaker is forced to adjourn Parliament for about an hour following a ruckus raised by the joint opposition and the JVP not only over the counting skills of their colleagues but also over the moral fibre of the members. Allegations are hurled whether any form of rigging took place as is done at elections. Naturally the air in the House heats up compelling the Speaker to take a breather. Upon his return to preside over the remainder of the day, he announces that a four member committee has been appointed by him to see if there had been a problem in the manner in which the votes had been taken. Again it is back to seek the aid of CCTV cameras, for another review, for another recount if necessary.

Parliament is then scheduled to meet on the 17th of the month. As far as the two suspended members are concerned, they do not seem unduly worried over their week long parliamentary ban. Even if they had not received this punishment, they would have only missed out on two days and taken the 11 day break until the 17th as a holiday along with their other colleagues. UNP MP Thevarapperuma even gloats about the incident in his face book. In the manner of the bragging street thug, Lanka’s Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs denies assault and says ‘if I had hit he would be in the surgical ward not in the accident ward.’
MAY 17: The second and final session for the month begins. An adjournment Motion on the “Present Situation of Sri Lankan Airline Ltd. and its Future” is moved by the UNP MP Nalin Bandara Jayamaha and this is held the same day. This is viewed by some as the first step by the Government to privatise the loss-making national airline and the debate is greeted as one the final destination of which fools none.

Charges are made that the Rajapaksa decision to retake the airline from Emirates made it take a nosedive. This is countered by others saying it is the UNP who opposed the Emirates takeover of the airline and even went to court when former President Chandrika took the decision to sell a stake to the United Arab Emirates’ national airline. Some blame it all on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother in law who tasted paradise to an unseemly extent as chairman of the company now in debt to the tune of 23 billion rupees.

MAY 18: Parliament meets and lays aside the woes of Lanka’s flying white elephant to mourn the tragedy caused by a natural phenomenon in the sky. It’s the flood havoc due to the sudden appearance of a depression in the Bay of Bengal. The weekend had seen devastation and the parliamentarians gathered in the House suddenly turn sombre to pay their respects to those dead and to extend their sympathies to their families.

But not even a national flood disaster can put a damper on the members’ fighting spirit when the customary sympathies are over and done with. When the debate on Srilankan resumes, Josephian Harin Fernando, the MP who only last week settled out of court a matter concerning a brawl he had with his cousin at the Colombo Swimming Club – that erstwhile water hole of the British and now the drinking well of modern day pukka sahibs – stoops to the gutter to convey his meaning to the joint opposition MP Mahindananda Aluthgama in a lingo he thinks the latter will understand better.

MAY 19: It’s a day of revelation to the Lankan public when they discover that a common word used in common parlance in day to day life is a serious thing when uttered within the hallowed chambers of the House. Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake is apparently a sensitive soul and takes umbrage when Dinesh Gunawardena refers to him as a ‘joker’. The Speaker, ever vigilant that members of the House should not be insulted by such unparliamentary language, is quick to come to the rescue of Karunanayake.

Euphemism rules in the House. In this Colombo 7 style posh drawing room of gentlemen there can be no room for mariyakade talk. Not with the ladies present. And children upstairs eavesdropping. And the Speaker says that in Parliament one cannot refer to a dog as a ‘balla’ but ‘sunakaya’ would do nicely. Dinesh is warned, though no substitute word for ‘joker’ is offered. And Karunanayake sits safe on his parliamentary seat, secure in the knowledge that though anyone may call him ‘joker’ outside parliament with impunity, none can call him ‘joker’ within it without inviting the Speaker’s wrath. Perhaps referring to him as Batman’s enemy will be okay?

MAY 20: Today it is Dinesh Gunewardna’s day to claim equality of parliamentary justice. He complains to the Speaker about Harin Fernando’s use of unparliamentary language the day before. He says it is a clear violation of the Standing Orders. He says Harin used dirty words to insult Mahindananda Aluthgama. He calls upon the speaker and the members to have a look at the video – thank heavens for CCTV – and spend their time seeing for themselves the filthy outburst of the robust minister. The Speaker duly informs Parliament that he has ordered a special inquiry.

Anything else in the House? Oh yes, the supplementary estimate of Rs 55 million which drew a lot of bother on May 5th is taken up for a vote. This time there is no division, no controversy, no fuss. It is passed with a simple show of hands and even the joint opposition present show the scantest interest in it reaching safe port after going through May 5th’s parliamentary storm. The business of Parliament for the day and for the month of May is over.

MAY 25: It is an extraordinary day for parliament. A special meeting has been called for by the Speaker. It has been gazetted and due notice has been given to the members. It has been summoned as a result of a demand made by Dinesh Gunawardena to debate an important issue. The weather. After the monsoonal hot air had flowed through the chambers, Harin Fernando rises to say sorry for having insulted Aluthgamage in filth and promises he will not use filth in the house again or – to paraphrase the Bard – to ‘seal up his lips and give no foul words but mum.” He takes his time to explain what led him to burst forth in filth and then tells the Speaker that even he, the Speaker, has been called ‘patholaya’ on many occasions by the same opposition that now attacks him. Parliament is then adjourned and will meet again in June.

But that’s not the end of the story. Wimal Weerawansa has since announced that until the voting fiasco which occurred on May 5th is not resolved to the joint opposition’s satisfaction, they will no longer pay respect to the Mace and to the Speaker. He declared on Wednesday: “We will not stand up when the Mace is paraded or bow down to the Chair when entering and leaving the House as a mark of respect if the Speaker shirks his duty to punish those responsible for the vote crisis.”

So there you have it. One month in the life of the 14th Parliament in a nutshell. And the cost?
In November last year Speaker Karu Jayasuriya revealed that one day’s parliamentary sitting costs the tax payer Rs 4, 600,000. This is without MPs salaries. For the nine days of parliamentary sittings this May, it would have cost the nation Rs 41.4 million. Since you’re footing the bill, you must decide – whether you are getting value for your money or trash for your cash? Everything has a price. But not everything has a value.

If, by the antics of its members, parliament ceases to command the respect of the public it will become patently clear to all that the spirit of Demos has fled its environ and the brick and mortar edifice has lost its justification to exist. Merely spending 40 million bucks a month to keep up the pretence of having a parliament which is nothing more than a Billingsgate in our midst will not prevent the nation from sliding into anarchy.

It’s time for political party leaders to corral their wild asses and prevent them from abusing the freedoms democracy bestows to all equally with but one proviso that, in the long run, only the worthy and the vigilant will enjoy its fruits. And it’s also time for the citizenry to wake up to the distant but distinct bells of alarm. Or else brace themselves to hear the dreaded thud of a dictator’s jackboot.

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