It came to pass earlier this month that the 20th Amendment to our Constitution has run into some political road works. There it was, all signed, sealed and gazetted and ready to be dropped on the collective head of a bemused public who suddenly found many existing institutions were to lose the independence they have [...]


Accountability and more such rot


It came to pass earlier this month that the 20th Amendment to our Constitution has run into some political road works. There it was, all signed, sealed and gazetted and ready to be dropped on the collective head of a bemused public who suddenly found many existing institutions were to lose the independence they have exercised.

That is not all. The legislature was also to lose some of the powers that had been bestowed on it since 2015 and even earlier. It was to be neutered instead of being strengthened, the public voice increasingly silenced.

Let it not be forgotten that right from the beginning the Rajapaksas saw the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe engineered the 19th Amendment as a constitutional instrument to constrict their political progress and even drive the family out of politics.

True enough there were valuable clauses in 19A that enhanced democratic governance, increased accountability and transparency and strengthened the powers of parliament. But to the Rajapaksas, 19A was intended to stultify the family’s political journey.

So understandably 19A would have to go. But the SLPP erred by turning 20A into more than a means of eliminating the pernicious and personal aspects of 19A but even those that would serve society and strengthen democratic institutions.

It was not surprising then that civil society, the media and professional bodies reacted adversely to this attempt to throw the baby with the bath water. They wanted to know the grandmaster of 20A, the constitutional pundit who had turned 19A on its head and gone beyond what many believed was the mandate for constitutional change.

Shocked by what the gazetted 20A prescribed as the remedy for stable and firm governance, many of those surprised by the turn of events pointed the finger of accusation at Justice Minister Ali Sabry who burst into the political scene relatively recently.

But unlike the Sparrow in the English nursery rhyme “Who killed Cock Robin?” Justice Minister Sabry was quick to tell his detractors “not I sir” denying he had done the dirty by sweeping away most of the worthy provisions of 19A.

So then who wanted to earn the ‘Ran Padakkama’ as the bearer of constitutional gifts that went beyond the expected, hoping that rewards would await him (or her) as creator of this initial constitutional shamble.

It seems even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the political duopoly that now governs the country, had decided to look at a possible rewrite of 20A and appointed two groups of ‘experts’ to provide their input.

Some who have faith that the duo might, like Lenin, take two steps back after taking one forward, may be disappointed if it turns out to be the other way round. This is especially so since 20A as earlier gazetted is to enhance presidential power many fold and slash away at the powers of the prime minister, parliament and responsibilities of key officials whose task is not to provide ballast to gormless authoritarianism as it often happens in our increasingly politicised society.

One could expect some tinkering with the now gazetted amendment, a little bit of cutting here and a little bit of polishing there, to give the impression that official committees appointed by the president and the prime minister have looked at them with an expert’s eye. But it still does not tell us who the original drafter was. Nor is the government, especially Justice Minister Ali Sabry, likely to tell, now that the gazetted draft has taken flak from a wide circle of society and professional and official bodies.

One of the strongest critics has been the Sri Lanka Audit Service Association (SLASA) which protested to President Rajapaksa about the amendment shutting the doors in the face of the Audit Service and thereby allowing state owned companies to escape financial scrutiny.

Writing in the Sunday Times last week, Namini Wijedasa exposed the fact that a large number of state-owned entities will not come under close financial examination as they should. After all they exist on public funds and subject to parliamentary oversight.

Wijedasa said: “Nearly 120 State-owned companies including the debt-ridden SriLankan Airlines will be exempt from Government audit under the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Among scores of other business entities to be excluded are Lanka Electricity Company (LECO), Sri Lanka Insurance, Lanka Hospitals PLC, Litro Gas Lanka Ltd, Lanka Sathosa, multiple plantation and electricity companies and Lanka Coal Company Ltd”.

If 120 state-owned companies are involved one could imagine their total cost to the public which will have no voice how the money is spent and how transparent their activities would be.

“The draft proposal this week drew strong protest from the Sri Lanka Audit Service Association (SLASA). When State-owned companies, in which the Government is majority shareholder, are audited by private entities, the reports are not required to be submitted to Parliament, the union said. This would undermine Parliamentary financial oversight,” she wrote

It is to halt such entities with 50 percent or more state-owned shares from avoiding necessary parliamentary scrutiny and trying to diddle lawmakers and the public that Article 154 (1) was introduced. This provision says that the Auditor-General “shall audit” all departments of the Government, the Office of the Secretary to the President, the Office of the Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Offices of the Cabinet of Ministers, the independent Commissions, as well as public corporations and businesses registered under the Companies Act in which the Government, a public corporation or a local authority holds 50 percent or more of shares

But it appears that this is not what the amended constitution is going to give the public. As the public knows well enough even with such safeguards some of these majority state-owned companies and institutions have been found to have engaged in dubious activities that were hardly clean. Senior officials, some of them relatives of politicians, have conducted themselves in ways that were nothing but disgraceful. If laws did not apply to them, safeguards were flouted and accountability and transparency mattered little what would stop them now?

If high-ranking officials and senior bureaucrats behaved with impunity even when laws existed to prevent bribery and corruption how much easier it would be when the barriers to such moral degradation and depravity are lifted like the floodgates as the constitutional amendment intends to do.

To listen to the political rhetoric that fills the air at election time and later, Sri Lanka is promised clean governance, free of corruption and turpitude of one kind or the other. Yet the doors are thrown open even wider to chumocracy and kleptocracy

PS: I had finished writing this column when I read that Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told a news conference the cabinet had agreed to the basic framework of 20A and had added it was drafted by the cabinet and the Legal Draftsman. So now we know, don’t we? Or do we, really? Anyway three cheers for collective responsibility!

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked for Gemini News Service. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism.)

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