Sri Lanka needs real ministers, a real cabinet and a Prime Minister to play monitor: Bellwether
ECONOMYNEXT – Corruption in Sri Lanka’s governments is partly due to the lack of an independent public service and permanent secretaries, but also due to the structure of the administration where the Prime Minister and President hold key portfolios.
Sri Lanka’s current administration with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is under fire for corruption in the central bank which is part of his portfolio and for the actions of a dubious gatekeeping committee under him, is a textbook example of how not to run a government.
In the well-functioning government of a free country in Western Europe such as Britain, the Prime Minister has no significant portfolio. The UK prime minister oversees the civil service, which is an independent service anyway.
In such a government a minister of finance is a ‘real’ minister who is responsible for the Treasury. So are other ministers.
If there is wrongdoing the Prime Minister has to play the role of monitor and take action.
This is a kind of check against corruption that exists in free countries that Sri Lanka no longer has.
Even discounting the fact that there is a President who is the head of the cabinet and a Prime Minister with significant powers in the current coalition administration, the Prime Minister did not take action in the bondscam case when his personal appointee was involved in corruption.
Though there is no excuse for not taking action and bad leadership, it could have been different if the central bank had been under someone else.
The appointment of the Finance Minister in 2015 was the first big mistake of the administration, but it could not have been corrected by taking some institutions away.
The President however did take action, playing the role of the monitor. However the President is also under a cloud over a ship deal for the Navy, and allocating frequencies from the telecom regulatory authority, which is under him.
The regulator should have been under the telecom ministry.
Many of Sri Lanka’s current economic troubles date back to the 2015 and 2016 budgets. They also allowed the President to interfere in economic decision-making further undermining the role of the Finance Minister, even after a new minister was appointed, who made good decisions.
It was Chandrika Kumaratunga who first put the Finance Portfolio under the President, making a top bureaucrat the effective finance minister. That is no way to run a government. Without permanent secretaries, high caliber people are no longer available in any case.
President Mahinda Rajapaska had several portfolios including Finance and top spending highways and the telecom regulator, petroleum and oil exploration under him, giving enormous powers to a presidency that already had excessive powers in the first place.
Such a structure tends to undermine freedoms of the citizens in addition to fostering corruption.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is also under fire for the actions of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM), which is a body made up of ex-bureaucrats loyal to him and some others.
It effectively serves as a gatekeeper to vet and block projects. Others say once an initiative goes to the committee, various power bases within the government tries to extract rents or push their interests.
As a result critics say the CCEM has become a body which tend to foster corruption.
The next big looming controversy in this regard may be the ‘take-or-pay’ liquid natural gas deal that is on line.
Ideally any policy gatekeeping should take place in the cabinet, where the Prime Minister could object to any project or initiative which was not in accordance with overall policy. No CCEM is needed.
Sri Lanka’s last real cabinet was probably under President J R Jayawardene. Now there are so many ministers, that the cabinet is virtually useless as a policy making and governing body.
As a result a kind of ‘kitchen cabinet’ was operating, making policy and decisions, both during President Kumaratunga’s time and President Rajapaksa’s time, which is dangerous for freedom. Nobody is accountable for such decisions and the cabinet becomes a rubber stamp.
The lack of an independent public service, with permanent secretaries is a key cog in the wheel of corruption.
When Sri Lanka got independence the ministry secretary was permanent. The ministries were also permeant. But the 1972 Republican constitution broke the civil service with the cabinet appointing outsiders as ministry secretaries, which started the rot.
Under the system inherited from the British a civil service commission appointed, transferred or took disciplinary action against secretaries.
The 1979 constitution completed the task by making President the sole authority in these matters. The system survived for a time, because men from the earlier stucture were in service.
What happened then was that any impermanent secretary who questioned a bad decision of a minister that undermined freedom and equality (a politically biased or revengeful move) or a corrupt decision would be sent to the ‘pool’.
The current administration before its term ends should at least bring law to make the Constitutional Council responsible for ministry secretary appointments. The Constitutional Council one of the good deeds of the current administration, though much weakened than originally expected.
This will enhance freedoms of the people and reduce corruption.
The Yahapalana administration had also laid the foundation for a police state by bringing an electronic ID card law (E-Nic) where the Defence Secretary can monitor private citizens’ data without a court order.
The E-Nic law should be rolled back or amended forthwith.
In free countries most freedoms were brought in by civil society organizations.
In the UK free trade was brought by the Anti-Corn Law League, probably the originally effective NGO or civil society organization.
Slavery was abolished worldwide including Sri Lanka by the actions of the Abolition Society and Africa Society.
This administration has also brought a draft law to control civil society organizations (Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act) that can foster freedom and move action against corruption fi they are allowe to operate freely. The VSSO Act along with the E-NIC law will further advance a police state.
By controlling civil society organizations, voices of the people, particularly those who are apolitical, the state will be strengthened against the people.
It must be noted that Hitler closed down all NGOs and civil society organizations, except the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Later they were also severely controlled.
In Sri Lanka, the constitution and the cabinet, is already stacked against the freedom of the people and their economic progress, while promoting corruption.
The central bank which generates inflation and depreciates a currency which is de facto pegged, is also stacked against the people.
By muzzling civil society organizations this administration will also kill the voices that can advance economic or civil freedoms and reduce corruption.
Economic Intelligence Unit of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce
Jehan Perera - Executive Director National Peace Council