Govt pledges to table National Audit Bill within two months | Sunday Observer

Govt pledges to table National Audit Bill within two months

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene
Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene

The inordinate delay in presenting the National Audit Bill (NAB) has paved the way for the Government and the Opposition parties to express divergent views. The Government legislators categorically deny certain media speculations, and say, the amendments made to the draft Bill have not aimed at making the Bill ineffective and added that the Government, as pledged, will present the Bill in Parliament within the next two months.

Joint Opposition front liners assert, if the proposed Audit Service Commission is going to be powerless and toothless, it is just another attempt to hoodwink the people, such as, with the National Election and Police Commissions.

The Auditor General’s Department sources say, when the Government talks about good governance, definitely, the Auditor General is the pivot of it and as such they should strengthen the hands of the Auditor General rather than weaken.

Dullas Allahapperuma

Anura Priyadarshana Yapa

Sunil Handunnetti

The NAB was first proposed in 2004. However, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government didn’t allow it to happen during the past 10 years.

The NAB was scheduled to be introduced on February 19, 2015 at the beginning of the hundred day program of the Yahapalana Government. Presenting the NAB was a key pledge in the run-up to the January 2015 Presidential poll.

The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on April 29, 2015 paved the way for the introduction of the NAB, the following day.

A four-member Cabinet Sub-Committee comprising, Ministers Dr.Sarath Amunugama, Rauff Hakeem, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Ravi Karunanayake proposed amendments to the original Bill. Subsequently, it was sent to Senior Prime Ministerial Adviser, Charitha Ratwatte for further examination and suitable amendments. According to highly informed sources at the Auditor General’s Department, the NAB has been revised thrice, thus making it ineffective.

State Finance Minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena told the Sunday Observer, the Government would present the NAB in Parliament as planned.

However, the Minister categorically denied claims that the Bill has been revised to make it ineffective. He said: “The Legal Department of the Finance Ministry will carry out an in depth study of the amendments in the Auditor General’s report. Otherwise, the Government has no intention whatsoever to delay the process. The Joint Opposition has no moral right to say that the latest amendments proposed to the Bill have weakened it. If the former Government was sincere, they should have presented this Bill in Parliament during their tenure in office”.

Asked about certain media speculations that several key clauses in the Bill have been removed, the Minister responded that it has not yet been finalized so that nobody can make such remarks at this stage.

The final Bill has not been drafted yet, and it is still under discussion. The Government as pledged, intends to present this Bill in Parliament within the next two months.

Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa said, the Bill has not come before the Cabinet, yet. So we have to wait and see.

Asked about the inordinate delay in presenting the NAB in Parliament, Auditor General’s Department sources told the Sunday Observer that the subject has gone beyond their control.

They said, it is the responsibility of Parliament to see that it is passed as early as possible. Even at the third round of discussions, they appointed committees, and the Bill is being changed. It appears, the Bill has been diluted and repeatedly examined for ways and means of reducing the powers of the Auditor General. Another round of discussion was completed and they have transmitted the information again to the Prime Minister’s office.

Most probably it would be gazetted but it wouldn’t have any effect because the draft completely violates even the Constitution. So, we don’t think it could be proceeded with even after gazetting.

According to AG’s Department sources, several key clauses of the Bill have been removed, which means it has further diluted certain sections to weaken the Audit Bill. However, the clause that empowers the Auditor General to order a surcharge to recover losses incurred by bad decisions of public officials still remains in the revised draft Bill.

But, the manner of proceeding with it has been completely changed since power has been given to the Audit Service Commission (ASC). The Auditor General is the person handling all issues of the audit, and knows the reason for the surcharge. But, that has been transferred to the ASC, completely violating the law. Nobody can give a different mandate to the ASC. It violates the Constitution. They have mixed up everything because they don’t know the actual rationale behind the office of the Auditor General, and the ASC.

A senior official of the AG’s Department told the Sunday Observer, the ASC is available to assist the Auditor General in administrative work, promotions, recruitment, and financial matters.

But they are two completely different institutions and the Auditor General should not come under the ASC because he is an independent person. It is the Auditor General alone who should give his opinion and none else.

They have changed these things without knowing facts about the supreme audit institution concept of the world. “Everything has been messed up, I don’t think there will be a good Audit Act or Audit Service Commission, now,” the official said.

He added, if it is passed as a gazette notification, many people would oppose the Bill and go to Supreme Court against the violation of the Constitution. It may be the reason for not bringing in this Bill. Before presenting the Bill in Parliament, they have to gazette it. When it is gazetted, reasonable time to respond should be given to affected parties.

It is only thereafter that it can be presented in Parliament. The draft, the so called final, had been prepared two weeks ago and the Legal Draftsman has sent it to the Prime Minister’s office, with a copy to the Auditor General.

It could be the final draft, which has got to be translated into Tamil and English. They have asked the Auditor General to respond, but he has said he cannot respond to such a Bill as it is not according to the system and that it violates the law.

AG’s Department sources said, the Government has not gazetted this Billyet, and assuch, it is not a public document. That is why we ask the Government to publish it, whether it is right or wrong, so that we could then propose necessary amendments. It is difficult to respond without it being gazetted. The Auditor General however, doesn’t mind because he does his job properly, with or without the Bill.

He is vested with constitutional powers, so that he can go ahead with his job. The Bill tries to ensure further independence of the Auditor General and at the same time, conform to the global framework. So even without that, we can go ahead because the Constitution is paramount, and has conferred all the powers.

If the Government wishes to move forward , first, they have to update the outdated laws. If they talk about good governance, definitely the Auditor General is the pillar of good governance. So they must strengthen the Auditor General rather than weaken him.

COPE Chairman and JVP Parliamentarian, Sunil Handunneththi said, there shall not be any problem for the Audit Bill to be presented in Parliament, but it looks as if the people’s crusade against corruption has been allowed to die a natural death. There is a huge campaign by social activists to arrest culprits and bring them to book. However, the Government attempts to defend the crooks. It is obvious, if the Audit Service Commission is appointed, the Bill which gives powers to the Commission is not implemented. We should like to ask the Government, if they are against corruption, why don’t they present this Bill in Parliament and pass it.

If there are any shortcomings in the proposed Bill, it should be rectified by Parliament and not by a committee appointed secretly. Shortcomings in Bills are discussed in Parliament. It is incumbent on the Government to present the Bill in Parliament even with inherent drawbacks, if any. Because, this is a Bill which the Government pledged to present within its hundred day program.

The attempt by the Government to revise the Bill for the third time is a clear reflection of its attempt to defend culprits. The Auditor General’s powers have been curtailed and he doesn’t have powers to appoint officers or formulate salary structures. Now, the Auditor General cannot transfer even an audit officer to another institution. All functions fulfilled by the Public Service Commission earlier, have been suspended due to the constant delay to present this Bill. The Government is deliberately attempting to prevent the Bill being presented in Parliament. The Government has a responsibility to bring up the Bill. If the Finance Minister doesn’t move the Bill, the Prime Minister can move it. If the Prime Minister doesn’t do it, the President can do so.

That any one of them doesn’t do so means they are not for the Bill. So far, the Bill has not even been presented to the Party Leaders.

Joint Opposition front liner and UPFA Matara District MP Dullas Alahapperuma told the Sunday Observer that the NAB is a very essential piece of legislation and that it was one of the drawbacks of the former Government.

Creating the ASC is a national requirement. I would like to give due recognition to the Government for setting up this Commission. The Election Commission was established under the 19th Amendment. But now, it doesn’t have any powers.

The Local Government elections have been indefinitely postponed for about two years but the Election Commission can’t do anything about it.

Therefore, it is good to have an Audit Service Commission but it should be given necessary powers through legislation. Otherwise,there is no use of a nominal commission. The National Police Commission was also established under the 19th Amendment but its Chairman too has resigned. Now, the Police act according to its wish.

Having a toothless commission is of no use. I am not in a position to comment with a sense of responsibility without looking at the final draft of the NAB. But, as reported by the media, if the proposed ASC is powerless and toothless , it is just another attempt to hoodwink the people, just as in the National Election and Police Commissions.

Introducing the NAB was a key pledge made in President Maithripala Sirisena’s election campaign. They promised the people to fulfil this pledge within the Government’s hundred day program. But, more than 800 days have elapsed now.

There is a suspicion among society that the Government, through the removal of several key clauses in the Bill attempts to curtail the constitutional powers of the Auditor General. In the last few occasions, it was proved, that the Auditor General, Gamini Wijesinghe is a very honest and upright person.

Therefore, a suspicion has arisen that some of the proposed clauses in the Bill have been removed to undermine the powers of the Auditor General.