31st August 1997

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Donkeying with the Constitution

If any one factor could be identified as the main reason for the mess we all are in, it is excessive party politics where everything is shaped or manipulated on party lines. Vital areas such as education, healthcare, the economy and the North-East conflict have been thrown into disarray and bedevilled by putting party or personal interests before national interests. Now we see fearful signs that the same may happen with the Constitution again.

The Constitution is widely acknowledged as a sacred document and the country’s fundamental law from which all other laws flow. If the Constitution can be changed through an easy if not arbitrary procedure, then we may see a new Constitution every time a government changes and it may be essentially to fit into the personal interests of the party concerned.

Coinciding with the launch of the ‘Sama Thavalama’ programme last Monday, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga indicated the government was now thinking in terms of getting the new Constitution including the devolution package passed by a simple majority in Parliament and through a non-binding referendum.

Does it mean the PA government has now resigned itself to a situation where the UNP will not help it to get a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the new Constitution? The PA has often complained that the UNP is not taking a stand and avoiding any commitment on the political solution. But the UNP could reasonably say that the PA has yet not clearly disclosed its own hand on the more complex areas, especially what the vital unit of devolution would be.

What indeed is the key element of the package? Very few if any really know. Recently at a seminar for PA MPs a Cabinet Minister asked what the package really was. If he doesn’t, then who knows? Certainly not the refugee, or the soldier or the man or woman on the street.

In controversial circumstances, Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L.Peiris accompanied by the Attorney General has gone to Malaysia reportedly to study the Constitution there. Two months ago they went to France and Britain. Before that to South Africa. The studying process is still in progress.

Then, the President speaks of a referendum. She has not expressly said whether it would be a non-binding referendum where we just get public opinion on an issue. According to the Constitution a binding referendum can come only after a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So the President is apparently not talking about that course because she seems to be talking in terms of not getting UNP support.

The proposed approach is fraught with danger with Constitutions being changed on the basis of a small majority in Parliament and a non-binding referendum. It makes us shudder. In contrast we saw how Britain conducted a referendum on European Union membership. All parties agreed that MPs could campaign and vote according to their conscience. In enlightened democracies, parties can get together and agree on a particular percentage of the vote - not just the 50 per cent. If they all agree that if the fixed percentage support a suggestion, the entire Nation would accept it. Last but certainly not the least they had a free and fair election.

In contrast the PA government is using its whip on the MPs and putting the state machinery into an exercise funded partly by the Norwegian government in getting its so-far half-baked Package accepted.

Peace caravans and similar shows may have some outward or ego value but the time has come to sacrifice self-interest and act for the highest good of all the people of our country.

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