Sri Lanka: We deserve our rulers

The voters have failed the country in electing some dregs of society to represent them in Parliament. So who can contest the saying that people get the rulers they deserve?

by Manik de Silva

( December 25, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It does not take rocket science to gauge public opinion on heaping goodies on the plates of MPs. Both government and opposition, as this yahapalana government has been doing during its tenure. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe cannot be unaware of what the vast majority of the people of this country feel about what can only be called the “purchasing” of the goodwill of the MPs by conferring a plethora of benefits on both the elected and unelected representatives of the people (aka National List MPs) in an obvious attempt to keep them in line. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was able to withstand an impeachment effort led by Messrs. Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali whom he sacked from the UNP, learned to his cost that antagonizing MPs can be expensive business. Many signatures on the impeachment resolution were those of disgruntled parliamentarians furious about the then president’s methods of checking whether they had sold their duty free vehicles under the ‘open’ papers system common then. Those who had were obviously not happy about a special unit set up by Premadasa stopping these vehicles on the road and checking their chassis numbers and what not.

Yesterday’s news that the government has put its announced plan of providing 58 MPs an additional perk of high-end vehicles procured on an operational lease costing the exchequer a whopping Rs. 2.4 billion on hold is an indication that the heat of public opinion is being felt where it matters. But it must be noted that the proposal has not been scuttled – it is only being held over perhaps for more propitious times. Parliamentarian Bandula Gunawardene, a vociferous Joint Opposition spokesman, spoke for all his fellow MPs both in the government and opposition when he said a few days ago that the duty free vehicles for MPs that had been a long standing practice going back 25 years must not be interfered with. Given that dozens of MPs have sold their vehicles no sooner they took possession, Gunawardene’s eloquence on the subject is unsurprising. Gadfly Nagananada Kodituwakku, a former customs official who is an attorney at law and a public interest activist, has been eliciting useful information under provisions of the new Right to Information law and has moved the courts on massive revenue losses to government as a result of its vehicle permit benevolence. We shall have to wait and see what results his labors will bring forth.

The commonly adduced justification for giving MPs, including those entering Parliament through the National Lists of various parties who do not incur election expenditure – unless they are defeated candidates appointed under the National List as has been done by the present administration – and such expenses must be recouped. The duty free vehicle permit is one way of recovering such expenditure. As we have said in this space before, the taxpayers do not owe their MPs a living. But the MPs are very well looked after on the people’s tax money and improving their lot appears to be a continuing project judging by the recent benefits conferred including an additional monthly ‘office’ allowance of Rs. 100,000 and the proposal to increase the daily sitting allowance from Rs. 500 to Rs. 2,500. Older readers will remember the oft-quoted remark of Sir. John Kotelawela “henda athey thiyanakam bedaganilla” (as long as the spoon is in your hand, serve yourself) – an art which Members of succeeding Parliaments have perfected. It is true that those with private means of an earlier era spent their personal wealth to get elected to Parliament, sometimes pauperizing themselves in that endeavor, and did not push for benefits from the national exchequer. But even so, there were people of modest means who were elected as must be the case in any democracy. We, after all, are along past the means tested method of franchise.

Undoubtedly MPs must be adequately remunerated so that they can do a proper job of representing their electors in the legislature. But such remuneration must reflect conditions prevailing in the country. We must not lose sight of why the duty free car permits were issued to MPs in the first instance. That was because their duties involved a lot of official traveling. But once the perk was conferred the process of improving it began to gather momentum, first slowly and then more rapidly until it began to gallop in recent years. We have reached the stage where the benefits have progressed way beyond all reasonable proportions. We have got a Parliament of ministers with the jumbo cabinets growing in succeeding Parliaments. The promise or restricting the cabinet ministries to 30 promised before the regime change on Jan. 8, 2015, has been circumvented on the basis that we now have a unity government of the UNP and the SLFP. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha who played the leading role in harnessing the forces that was able to do the unthinkable must be turning in his grave (in we are permitted to borrow the common metaphor although the thero was cremated) at how the ideals that powered that campaign have been corrupted.

Satirical writers have in recent days excelled in proclaiming the Christmas came early for Members of Parliament. It seems to us that every day is Christmas for these worthies. The tragedy is perquisites heaped on parliamentarians do not succeed in attracting enough better quality people to the legislature. The reverse unfortunately seems true. The voters have failed the country in electing some dregs of society to represent them in Parliament. So who can contest the saying that people get the rulers they deserve?

Manik de Silva, is the Editor in Chief of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly where this piece originally was appeared



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