Sri Lanka needs real ministers, a real cabinet and a Prime Minister to play monitor

A system of checks and balances is necessary to combat corruption and protect the interests of citizens

Corruption in Sri Lanka’s governments is partly due to the lack of an independent public service and permanent secretaries. It is also due to the structure of administration where the Prime Minister or President holds key portfolios.

Sri Lanka’s current administration – with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe under fire for corruption in the Central Bank (which is a 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.

CLASS MONITOR
In the well-functioning government of a free country in western Europe such as Britain, the Prime Minister has no significant portfolio. The British 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. Sadly, Sri Lanka no longer has such a system in place. We have a President who is head of the cabinet and a Prime Minister with significant powers in the current coalition administration. However, the latter did not take action in the bond scam case when his personal appointee was involved in corruption.

There is certainly no excuse for not taking action and bad leadership. Things could have been different had the CentralBank 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.

PORTFOLIO ACQUISITION
The President, however, did take action, playing the role of monitor. But, he too is under a cloud over a ship deal for the navy and for 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, which allowed the President to interfere in economic decision-making, further undermining the role of the finance minister, even after a new minister who made good decisions was appointed. 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, such people are no longer available in any case.

Many of Sri Lanka’s current economic troubles date back to the 2015 and 2016 budgets, which allowed the President to interfere in economic decisionmaking, further undermining the role of the finance minister, even after a new minister who made good decisions was appointed

President Mahinda Rajapaksa had several portfolios, including finance, top-spending highways and the telecom regulator, petroleum and even oil exploration under him, giving enormous powers to a presidency that already had excessive powers.

Such a structure tends to undermine the freedoms of citizens, in addition to fostering corruption.

KITCHEN CABINET
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. But, it is alleged that once an initiative goes to the committee, various power bases within the government try to extract rents or push their interests.

As a result, critics say the CCEM has become a body that tends 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 that is not in accordance with overall policy. No CCEM is needed.

Sri Lanka’s last real cabinet was probably under President J R Jayewardene. Now, there are so many ministers that the Cabinet is virtually useless as a policymaking and governing body.

A kind of ‘kitchen cabinet’ was operating during both President Kumaratunga’s and President Rajapaksa’s time, which is dangerous for freedom. Nobody is accountable for such decisions, and the Cabinet becomes a rubber stamp.

PUBLIC SERVICE
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 permanent. 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 1978 constitution completed the task by making the President the sole authority in these matters. The system survived for a time because men from the earlier system were in service.

As a result of the change, any 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’.

Before its term ends, the current administration should at least bring a law to make the Constitutional Council responsible for the appointment of ministry secretaries.

The establishment of the council was one of the good deeds of the current administration, though it was much weaker than originally expected. It will enhance the freedoms of the people and reduce corruption.

POLICE STATE
The Yahapalana administration has 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 without a court order.

The E-NIC law should be rolled back or amended forthwith. In free countries, most freedoms were ushered in by civil society organizations. In the UK, free trade was brought by the Anti-Corn Law League, probably the original effective NGO or civil society organsation. Slavery was abolished worldwide including in Sri Lanka through the actions of the Abolition Society and Africa Society.

The present administration has brought a draft law to control civil society organisations that can foster freedom and drive action against corruption. This act, called the Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act, along with the E-NIC law, will further advance a police state

However, the present administration has brought a draft law to control civil society organisations that can foster freedom and drive action against corruption. This act, called the Voluntary Social Services Organisations Act, along with the E-NIC law, will further advance a police state.

Controlling civil society organisations and the voices of the people, particularly those who are apolitical, will result in the strengthening of the state against the people.

It must be noted that Hitler closed down all NGOs and civil society organisations except the Catholic and Lutheran Churches (though they too were severely controlled).

In the Sri Lankan constitution, 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 staked 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.