he office of the Auditor General is a position constitutionally guaranteed in Sri Lanka and protected worldwide with wide powers and functions for the protection and continuity of traditions from 1795 with the appointment of “Hon. Cecil Smith” as the first Auditor General who set standards that trickled down smoothly for generations with international support and assimilation of practices and conventions. Her /His salary or perks cannot be reduced during the tenure of the office and any removal is subject to a long and arduous process involving the Legislature to which the Auditor General is responsible.
He/she is responsible for the quality of accounts and financial discipline of State funds with utmost care acting with no fear or favour in the midst of the politicised and complicated political system. Governments, the United Nations and the United States have pleaded to maintain the integrity and independence of this post with respect, integrity, precedents, practices and traditions. It is from the United Kingdom that these traditions and practices trickled down to Sri Lanka on the AG and COPE practices as it is known and followed in the UK from the comptroller of the household of Royalty worldwide, in the West, and other parts on accountability, supervision of the public accounts and independence of the office is given top priority unconditionally with no fear or favour. Mechanisms on accountability are rigorously implemented.
Lima Agreement/Convention on Auditors General
The Lima Declaration agreed upon in Malta gives specific guidelines to the Commonwealth of nations which has ratified and reinforced guidance of maintenance and independence at SAI (Supreme Auditor Institution) which is celebrated in the CHOCH concluded in 2013 Commonwealth. Articles of the
Sri Lankan consultation (154-3, 154-4 and 4b) empower the AG to obtain technical, scientific and professional assistance via the secretary of the minister of finance which is a worrying procedure unlike in the case of the election commissioner who has the mandate and power of expenditures without the assistance of the Executive.
In the famous “Arjun Mahandran’s” controversial episode there was a need to seek expert advice and opinion for the inquiry due to the complexity of the matter, for which the AG is given a mandate to work with the cooperation of the finance ministry also subject to questions and criticism. Head of the Executive and some members have made some threatening and drastic comments on journalists and also commented on the performance of the Auditor General which is not the accepted practice in Sri Lanka and worldwide on the officials engaged in this honourable and difficult job based on impartial investigations on corrupt practices of the governance. Independent scientific and expert reports is a necessity and a prerequisite for inquiries to be conducted independently and steps taken by the Finance Ministry to conduct such inquiries undermining and by passing the Auditor General are worrying issues. All the government ministries and departments are bound to provide information and forward files to the AG for his/her deliberations including summoning for discussions and meetings. The power and teeth for such needs are a grey area which to date is practised based on practices and conventions respected and implemented. Steps of non-attendance and mere reporting and if the Executive is not co-operative there could be difficult areas in the implementation of the duties of the AG’s office.Heads of the Commonwealth recognise the contribution and value for money to ensure the public faith on proper accounting and accountability of the public funds given to the rulers on trust by the citizen in utmost faith. the Auditor General is answerable and reporting collectively to the Parliament(legislature) and not to the Executive who has power to invite for discussions, the power not generally used based on conventions. Though theoretically the Parliament, Executive and the COPE have a mandate to invite the Auditor General for questioning and discussions, it is generally not a practice. The invitation by the finance minister and the PM for discussions and the remarks of some members of the Legislature are worrying factors in terms of the independence as the celebrated legal adage “ justice should not only be done it must seem to be done”.
" It is the duty of the citizen and the civil society currently busy on politics and human rights to chase this immediate and crying need to protect the office of the Auditor General for the benefit of the Citizen going through a transitional and difficult era"
It is a sorry story where the Auditor General is compelled to go through media interviews to speak on independence integrity and need of the tools for maintenance of the dignity of the office in supervising and auditing public accounts which may not be palatable to some government servants and members of the legislature in hiding fear and anxiety. The Auditor General’s powers and duties and independence are the centre of discussion with the mass scale of financial misappropriations by members of the Government and public service officers which have come to the attention of the public. It is the duty of the Auditor General to supervise and report the accountability to the Parliament with the independent officers and the facilities by the government machinery. There should not be an iota of influence, fear, or discouragements on the officials directly or indirectly. It is informed the Auditor General has requested salary increments to the head and the staff on par with the rising cost of living and perks offered to the other positions. The Prime Minister has informed that steps will be taken to increase income perks and facilities for the bribery commissioner by a Cabinet paper, while declining a similar request by the Auditor General which is a worrying factor on the integrity and independence of the office in the process of combating bribery and corruption.
The powers and duties of the Auditor General are limited to inquire into, report and issue reports/certificates to the Parliament to be used by the COPE and the Legislature which is picked up by the media and civil society. While the impact of the reporting process across the length and breadth of the world and the country, with a great impact on the prevention of corruption as a ripple effect, and attacks on media and undermining the officials will diminish the strength and confidence of the officers and the citizen due to pressure and statements undermining the independence and impartiality. Now that the FCID appears to be active in laying the net on the previous regime on bribery, corruption and wrongdoings while the current good governance pledged not to continue and fight corruption and bribery to the last word. The threat to “naming and shaming” of the media personnel and establishments in public under cover of Parliament privileges and the strength of political power is unacceptable. It is disastrous, dangerous and childish. Parliament is the great meeting point of the good governance elected by citizens as “Trustees” for a given period based on the promises made during the election campaign against the opponents allegedly full of corruption misdoings and bribery. The basis of “Lichchavi” way of good governance and “Yahapalanaya”promised by the current rulers is based on “Dasaraja Dharma” preaching tolerance, listening, impartiality, consider citizens’ children, giving due place for the other views and the jurisprudence full of historical preachings and precedents in Sri Lanka and Asia. Media publicity in naming shaming and identifying media establishments and journalists by the Leader of the Executive and the group is worrying and a direct threat and a pressure on the media and impartial government intuitions protected by the citizen media NGOs and Social Networks. The office of the Auditor General, Attorney General, COPE, and the government media establishments should be made free and fair not to be the pawns of the government elected by the people for good governance.The legislature and the Governance appear to be tensed and worried and appear to exert direct and indirect pressure on the office of the AG so far considered fearless and independent.
"The basis of “Lichchavi” way of good governance and “Yahapalanaya” promised by the current rulers is based on “Dasaraja Dharma"
It is the duty of the citizen and the civil society to protect encourage and exert pressure to the governance to maintain independence and provide required and requested facilities and funds as in the case of the Election Commission with freedom to utilise funds allocated without the influence of the governments when the Auditor General’s office does not come under any ministry is lacking this privilege. World Bank, Commonwealth and many international organisations are armed with the protection of the independence of the Auditor General in the process of accountability of the loans granted and law and order of the state and good governance pledged to practice. Currently there are controversies on the tender procedure of expenditures on infra-structure, imports of coal, oil, constructions, industries, and many such major projects involving billions of dollars, pounds and rupees alleged to be unaccounted for or not properly audited with shady transactions. There are a series of serious episodes including, the bond affair, coal and oil issues, and many questionable and shady deals subjected to audit. Obviously those who are responsible will exert pressure from all corners politically and all other means for survival and slip away from responsibility. Physiological attacks and threatening of the officers were never heard of but it appears to be haunting following the conduct and speeches and threats of some members of government. It is the duty of the citizen and the civil society currently busy on politics and human rights to chase this immediate and crying need to protect the office of the Auditor General for the benefit of the Citizen going through a transitional and difficult era. Bribery corruption and media are interconnected and linked in the combat and prevention- if not eradication of illegal and shady transactions of the politicians and the government servants used to corruption addicted as opium addicts.
"It is a sorry story where the Auditor General is compelled to go through media interviews to speak on independence integrity and need"
The threat to name and threatening Editors is a bad and dangerous precedent. When it is started by the head of the Executive definitely the others will follow suit with more vigour and strength for their own survival. This is not the press freedom practised in the West advising the governance in Sri Lanka and the Embassies supervising the conduct of the local rulers may not be happy. Though the executive is blamed for partiality of the media all the state printed and electronic media is backing the government with no hesitation leaving no room for the other views and news. Private media and the editors are under pressure for impartiality. Private media all over the world including in Sri Lanka is owned by local and international multinational businesses and the government can easily trap them in the government machinery. If the Auditor General’s position is replaced by a theses member committee as discussed in the new changes and legislation, it will be another commission appointed by the political authority in the current set up. Definitely the Auditor is more important and powerful in combating corruption than the ailing Bribery Commission started with thrashes, walks and funfairs fast diminishing strength and vigour fast with inefficiency inactivity and witch hunts instead of fighting corruption.
"It is from the United Kingdom that these traditions and practices trickled down to Sri Lanka on the AG and COPE practices"
If the Commissioner wishes to trap sharks or sprats at any given time it is a matter of sending some officers to immigration, motor traffic, police, exchange control harbour clearance and many if not all public departments or a ministry engaged in day-to-day work and mega transactions with the public and private transactions. If the Bribery Commissioner is entitled to a higher salary and perks and the Auditor General who is most effective hundred times more should be given due recognition and promotions. The head of the Executive has taken steps by a special Cabinet paper with the help of the legislature for the salary increase of the Bribery Commissioner with a lot of perks;there appears to be an inequality and something wrong somewhere in the judgement of priorities and necessities of the Auditor General and the Bribery Commissioner. There are worrying matters and issues to be addressed by the citizen, NGOs , civil society, and pressure groups as it is most likely the governance will have no time or interest to the views of the independent and helpless citizen in fear and suffering with no power and media backing. The issue is to be considered completely non-political and as a national need in the eradication of bribery corruption and poverty which are interconnected with nepotism and greed for money and power. Let citizens live in peace without fear under the governance of “Dasa Raja Dharma”.
The writer could be reached on Sarathdw28@gmail.com