The Institution of Parliament depends for its efficacy and indeed, its very existence, on some basic principles, without which it cannot function at all.
One of these principles is the division of functions and responsibilities between Government and Opposition. For centuries the role of the British Parliament, on which Commonwealth legislative practice is based has re-organised the fundamental distinction between “Her Majesty’s government” and “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition”.
There are specific and distinct roles assigned by Parliamentary Law and practice to the government and opposition and the effectiveness of the system of representative democracy in serving the public good hinges over the interaction between the two sides of the Houses within the framework of settled rules.
This is of course possible only if there is a clear and unmistakable dividing line between Government and Opposition. This cannot be blurred unless the democratic system itself is to be put in period.
The current situation in our country is that members of the SLFP have assumed office as Cabinet Ministers, State Minister and Deputy Ministers in the government not on the basis of individual decisions but as the result of a collections and binding decision by the party hierarchy.
The decision to join the Government, and to become an interact part of it, was made by the apex body of the party, the Central Committee.
It is impossible to argue, with any degree of conviction, that a party whose governing body decides to accept Cabinet and other executive positions in the Governments is not organically an intrinsic part of the Government.
It hardly requires a moment’s reflection to realize that it is a total aberration for a party which has become an inseparable part of the Government in this way, to attempt to function at the same time in the Opposition, and even to occupy the position of Leader of the Opposition.
This is, essentially, an issue of identity. A party governed by an authoritative decision cannot function partly in the Government and in part in Opposition.
It must make up its mind where it belongs: it has to be one or the other, not both.
This is quite obvious in terms of logic, pragmatism and Parliamentary procedure and tradition.
Consider the absurdity of arguing the contrary. An example could best illustrate this self-evident point.
On a regular basis, during sitting days in our Parliament in the recent past, the Leader of the Opposition has proceed questions to the Government under Standing Order 23(2) on matters of urgent public importance.
The legitimate purpose of this initiative is to try to put the Government in a position of embarrassment or difficulty and to drive - quite properly – a political advantage in the eyes of the public. It must be remembered that the responsibility for answering a question under Standing Order 23(2) is not that of an individual Minister but of the Government as a whole.
We now have an extraordinary situation. The current Leader of the Opposition is a Vice-President of the SLFP. A substantial number of office bearers of the SLFP are now members of the Government. It is, therefore, quite likely that an urgent question on some public issues posed by one Vice President of the Party, in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition, would be answered from the Government Benches by another Vice President of the SLFP, this time as a member of the Government and the Cabinet, bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility with his other Cabinet colleagues.
It does not call for much imagination to figure out how the optics of this situation will be perceived by the general public. The whole purpose of the Opposition, which has an essential function to perform in constitutional theory and practice, is to keep the policy and actions of the Government under constant scrutiny and where warranted, to point out the error of its ways for the benefit of the public. Can this objective possibly be achieved when office bearers of the same party, spreading themselves over the Government as well as Opposition purport to perform the functions of both, with scant regard for the seminal distinction between they are entrusted with in the duty of governance and those who are duty bound to exercise surveillance over the repositories of public trust?
The consequences of this farcical situation strike at the very root of public confidence in the system. These circumstances have the clear appearance of pretence and make believe. The probable result is the entirely unacceptable risk of a unique degree of cynicism which is demonstrably the principal problem with our political culture at this time.
The problems are compounded by the infinite opportunities for abuse, once the precedent is set and acknowledged. Sri Lanka is accustomed to governments with steam-roller majorities. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike had a two-thirds majority in Parliament from 1970, President J.R. Jayewardene had five-sixths in 1977 and President Mahinda Rajapaksa had more than two-thirds during his recent tenure.
What if creative ingenuity had been resorted to in their contexts to use part of their massive majorities in Parliament to fill the Government Benches and to send the surplus across the aisle to function as the largest group in Opposition quite easily done, arithmetically – and to claim the office of Leader of the Opposition?
This is to rewrite Constitutional Law and Parliamentary tradition from a wholly cynical standpoint with irreparable damage inflicted on the social contract between Parliament and the electorates. It is also to make Constitutional values stand on their head and to reduce the pivotal institution of representative democracy to a mockery. In doing so, it will surely raise skepticism to new heights.
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