when making appointments to high posts in the public sector - Karu
The Dailymirror spoke to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya over a number of current issues ranging from the Joint Opposition to new Standing Orders to be introduced, Commonwealth and the IPU. He shared the following with us.
You have a huge national responsibility on your shoulders presiding over sessions of an exceptional Parliament and the Constitutional Assembly tasked to introduce a new Constitution. Are you ready for the challenge?
Not only me, but the entire government is committed to enact a new constitution or amend the 1978 Constitution to fulfil the aspirations of people with main focus on abolishing the Executive Presidency, introducing a new electoral system and promoting and strengthening democratic establishments under the concept of good governance.
The people of this country gave a clear mandate to President Maithripala Sirisena on January 8, 2015 to give priority to transparency in all government business and effectively to do away with the highly criticized electoral system and the Executive Presidency. They wanted to put an end to the lawlessness, restore the rule of law and strengthen the basic freedom and democracy. It is true that the consensual government formed with a rainbow coalition for 100 days after January 8 was able to fulfil a major part of the of peoples aspirations. When they went before the people after the 100-day programme, the people gave a clear mandate to two major political parties to form a consensual government through which to address remaining issues of the country reassuring the people could live a comfortable life. This is the task the government is committed to accomplish and Parliament not only to pass necessary legislations in the process but give its fullest assistance and cooperation to the government to ensure all Sri Lankans achieve prosperity, spiritual development and worldly happiness.
Despite taking the top seat in the legislature only for about 8 months, you have confronted many a storm in Parliament during this short tenure. How do you relate the experience in Parliament as the Speaker?
When you work with diverse political interests in a rainbow coalition government, you will have to handle Parliament business with extreme caution, discretion and patience. The current Parliament is an unique combination of members with one group of parliamentarians in the same party supporting the government while another group opposing and calling themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’.
I have to live with this. I always try my best to maintain decorum, dignity and consensus within Parliament by treating all members in the House equally. Incidentally, however, there were disagreements upon allocation of time to the Joint Opposition, but we were able to get it sorted out with dialogue and consensus and the Joint Opposition is I think satisfied after it was allocated bulk of time allocated to the Opposition. To make business in the floor easier, I now have identified two separate Opposition groups in Parliament. However, a similar scenario we have witnessed only once, whereas the Conservative Government in the UK was supported by the Labour Party to form a wartime coalition between 1940 and 1945.
When Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned during the spring 1940, incoming Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to bring the other main parties into a coalition. Clement Atlee was appointed Lord Privy Seal and a member of the War Cabinet, eventually becoming the United Kingdom’s first Deputy Prime Minister.
A number of other senior Labour figures also took up senior positions. The trade union leader Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour, directed Britain’s wartime economy and allocation of manpower, the veteran Labour statesman Herbert Morrison became Home Secretary, Hugh Dalton as Minister of Economic Warfare and later President of the Board of Trade, while A. V. Alexander resumed the role he had held in the previous Labour Government as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Interestingly, we are experiencing the same political transformation in Sri Lanka right now and I am hopeful that this political set up would succeed in and out of Parliament despite many a theoretical and policy disagreements, the government has given a due hearing to the Joint Opposition.
You are the first Speaker who wields enormous power and authority vested upon you under the 19th Amendment. We welcome your comments.....
Chairing the Constitutional Council (CC) entails a huge responsibility. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution empowers the legislature, the Prime Minister and the Speaker with significant authority.
In the CC, my role is an independent one. I act like a Supreme Court Judge when appointments to high posts in the public sector are considered. My personal opinion is that we must increase the civil society representation in the CC further, as I believe the current three representatives is inadequate. We will have to draw out attention to this when the new Constitution is drafted.
You will be given more power once the legislature was further strengthened when the Executive Powers of the President were fully pruned under the new Constitution. Are you ready for the Challenge?
The new Constitution or the Constitutional Amendments are enacted to give more power to the legislature and the Speaker. I have been able to maintain democracy in every aspects of Parliamentary business and consult appropriate parties and discuss problems when necessary. But being a multi party democracy, constant irritations and disagreements are natural but what most important is that we have been able to resolve almost all these issues amicably and with mutual understanding.
I am in conversation with the President and Prime Minister regularly on the issues coming out of Parliamentary business. Utmost harmony, understanding and consensus are fully maintained at all these interactions in order to ensure smooth running of day to day affairs of Parliament. It is the responsibility of all members to respect and maintain the dignity and decorum of the House.
The formation of the consensual government is entirely a new experience to the people, politicians and to Parliament in particular. Have you found it challenging to control one group of members from the same party who is extremely hostile to the government that represents the so-called Combined Opposition and the other group taking the government benches and toe the government line?
Although the concept is working satisfactorily at the moment, grass root level supporters are still trying to come to terms with it. They want the political leadership of their own party run the country.
However I believe a vast majority of people have taken this in their stride for the sake of future generation and hope for the better. I would like to call this a National Reconciliation Government.
When countries go through difficult times, the national-minded people take decisions to sort out issues. We have seen these are happening in many parts of the world. In Germany, three main political parties: The Social Democrats (SPD) and The Christian Social Union (CSU) have joined Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) to form the current coalition government.
We must realize that our country has a different but robust political culture. We are a highly politicized country and politics have imbibed with religious, social and family affairs in all parts of the country. I believe we must distance ourselves from this extreme political inclination and, sooner than later, try to become more independent and self-confident.
A section of the Joint Opposition has reportedly written to the IPU saying that your handling of Parliament business is detrimental to the concept of good governance and against the Parliamentary traditions. What do you wish to say?
Yes, a couple of Joint Opposition members have visited Geneva and met some senior officials of the IPU (Inter Parliamentary Union) and I believe they have every right to do that. I met IPU Chairman when I was in Lusaka, in late March when I visited Zambia to take part in the 134th IPU sessions and discussed issues that had been raised by the Joint Opposition. I was able to explain the true position in detail to him. However, I don’t think these are issues that should be elevated to Geneva as we have addressed many concerns raised by the Joint Opposition through dialogue and consensus.
Throughout your political career, you have been highly critical on corruptions, misdeeds and indiscipline among politicians. What progress has been made on introducing a ‘Code of Conduct’ for Parliamentarians initiated by you?
A draft Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians has already been distributed among them for their views. This has been drawn after studying several such codes that are practiced in countries with Parliamentary democracy and with International expertise.
You are on record saying that you were determined to review Standing Orders in Parliament and introduce Amendments to ensure decorum, discipline and dignity among Parliamentarians. Has any progress been made in this regard?
Here again, a draft of Standing Orders is ready and finishing touches are being given by the Secretary General of Parliament right now. I have had preliminary discussions with party leaders. One of the recurrent issues that have drawn the attention of all is the absence of Ministers to answer questions raised in Parliament. All party leaders agreed to make it mandatory that a Minister or his Deputy must remain in Parliament to answer questions and supplementary questions, which is no doubt, strengthen parliamentary democracy. The Parliament will approve the new set of Standing Orders in the next couple of months.
You represented Sri Lanka at the 23rd ‘Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth Countries’ conference at Kotakinabalu in Malaysia recently. Do you think the Commonwealth plays any significant role in the current global scenario under the backdrop of many think the Commonwealth is now archaic and anachronistic?
That was a very interesting meeting where Parliaments of over 125 countries were represented. I had the opportunity to meet many Speakers from East, West and Africa. There were one to one interactions with Speakers that helped to share knowledge in different political cultures, Parliamentary traditions, Standing Orders and Code of Conduct adopted by many legislatures for law makers. Many Speakers showed much interest to know about the Oversight Committees of Sri Lankan Parliament, question time of the Prime Minister, PAC, COPE and the Right to Information Bill which I explained to them in detail. Almost all Speakers were in agreement that Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world with a robust and strong Parliamentary Democracy.
I also enlightened the confab of ‘Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth’ on the initiatives taken by Sri Lankan government to improve Human Rights and promote reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation after the end of the war and in particular since the Constitutional Government came to power in January 2015.
I was able to convince the participants how the current government had gone an extra mile to do every thing possible under its command to promote reconciliation and inter communal and religious harmony for the first time after the end of the war and begun investigations into the assassinations of late law makers Joseph Parararajasingham, Nadaraja Raviraj, T. Maheswaran and D.M.Dassanayaka by the LTTE.
With these developments and actions in the International and domestic level, you can’t say Commonwealth is archaic.
What is this controversy over the arrest of Parliamentarians by law enforcement authorities for an offence? Do they lose their Parliamentary privilege with the violation of the law or should the Police follow a different procedure when they arrest law makers?
This is an issue that has been subjected to many a debate. Parliamentarians are the representatives of the people, and therefore, they should be given due recognition. I have discussed this with the Police and the judiciary. The Sri Lanka Police has given an undertaking to inform me if and when a Parliamentarian is questioned or arrested for any purpose. With regard to impounding of a passport of a MP, the Speaker should be informed other than during exigent circumstances. The similar practice is not necessary when it comes to a law maker, even when he/she has been charged with serious criminal offence.
However, under no circumstances, the legislature or the Speaker will interfere in the duties or inquiries of the Police or the judiciary.