Constitution - people’s prerogative - Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva | Sunday Observer

Constitution - people’s prerogative - Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva

20 September, 2020

Minister of Labour, Nimal Siripala de Silva said the fate of the country and the Constitution have to be decided on by the people of Sri Lanka themselves and not by the international community. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said the political decisions of a country are taken by its people, democratically, and the international community has no stake in it at all.

The international community wants us to establish norms and democratic processes in the manner adopted in their own countries. The Minister said we should know the background of our country- the political culture and the needs of the people. If the Executive Presidency is good for the people of Sri Lanka, why should we be guided by the norms and the directions of the international community or the NGOs. It is up to the people of Sri Lanka to decide their political destiny.

Q: The nine-member Committee appointed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has made several changes to the draft of the 20th Amendment and handed it to the Premier on September 15. Could you explain?

A. As a member of the Committee I am not in a position to divulge the contents of the Committee report. We have discussed the draft of the 20A. The President wants to ensure that this draft does not contain anything that proposes a referendum. We viewed it from that angle and ensured that we can pass it with the two-thirds majority in Parliament. Apart from that, the Committee members expressed various views on certain clauses in the 20A, which were all considered and the report given to the Prime Minister. That is democracy practised within the party. The final decision is with the party leadership and the President.

Q: What is the SLFP’s position with regard to the 20A? Has it submitted its own proposals to the Government?

A. The SLFP’s stance is that the President in his election manifesto and the parliamentary election has clearly asked for a mandate to abolish the 19A. He requested the people to elect him as President and to give a two-thirds majority to the SLPP as the Government could not work smoothly due to the 19A. The people have responded positively to the President’s request by giving a two-thirds majority to the Government.

The SLFP holds the view that the people have expressed their desire to change the 19A, and therefore, we should not obstruct that.

The other point is that the President has won the Presidential Election with an overwhelming majority so that he should be given the chance to change the Constitution in the manner he thinks fit.

Q: Which is more appropriate, amending the Constitution or introducing a completely new Constitution?

A. Our final goal is to introduce a new Constitution. The 20A will only be a temporary measure until a new Constitution is drafted. It would take at least a year to introduce a new Constitution as it would need wide consultation. We have appointed an Expert Committee headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva for that. They will seek the views of the public, Members of Parliament and all other political parties. Thereafter, we have to come to a conclusion and draft the new Constitution. There are certain shortcomings and gaps in the present Constitution. We have to ascertain the shortcomings and eliminate them when we draft a new Constitution. For example, some members of the judiciary such as the Magistrates and District Judges come under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Service Commission.

In the case of public servants, their transfers and punishments are examined by the Public Service Commission, and if a public servant is not satisfied with the decision or order given by the Public Service Commission, he has a right to appeal to the Administrative Tribunal headed by a Supreme Court judge. However, that opportunity is not given to the judicial officers, for whom the decision by the Judicial Service Commission is final and conclusive. Hence, the aggrieved judicial officer would say, “I have a case to be presented and I should have a right of appeal so that an opportunity must be given.” That is a matter which we have to consider in the overall framing of the Constitution.

Similarly, the Attorney General has pointed out the case of the legal officers in his Department. Their recruitments and promotions should not be done on the directions of the Public Service Commission but there should be a separate committee for that. These are the issues we face. We also need to increase the number of judges of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Also, how do we strengthen provincial administration, especially, the concept of devolution of power. Are we going to devolve at the Pradeshiya Sabha level? There are different schools of thought.

Some say the Provincial Councils should be abolished while others say they should remain, and yet others say it should be devolved down to the Pradeshiya Sabha level. These are matters which have to be debated. We have to make provision for them based on the consensus arrived at in future deliberations.

Next, how do we prevent the delay in delivering judgements? When I was the Justice Minister some people told me that their case although concluded six months ago, judgement had not yet been delivered. In one of the minor courts, 44 judgements had not been delivered for over two years. Therefore, we have to lay down certain parameters that once the case is concluded, the judgement must be delivered within a given timeframe. These are people-friendly amendments which we need. If they are incorporated in the Constitution, everybody would be bound by it.

Q: Do you think the new Constitution should lay emphasis to change the electoral system?

A. We have been fighting for long to change the electoral system. The people want a constitutional amendment, especially, a good electoral system where a Member of Parliament could be elected to be responsible to a defined geographical area. In a district, they can use this system for every electorate without the preferential system. There will be the first-past-the-post system applicable to the electorate.

However, taking into account all the votes secured by each party, there will be certain seats allocated on the propositional representation basis. This will bring a new political culture to our system.

It will discourage the forming of extremist parties based on religion and ethnicity. Everybody will then be compelled to contest through the major political parties. The minorities should also integrate with the main political parties. That is what happened in the early days of elections.

Now we have a ballot paper which runs into 26 inches. Everybody who can deposit Rs.75,000 can contest the election independently. Our experience is they don’t get even less than one per cent of the votes polled. What is the justification for permitting these independent groups to contest? We should strike off the political parties which could not secure even one per cent of votes at a general election. Also, how many spoiled votes are there in an election? The people are confused with the ballot paper. There should be a simple method for the people to cast their votes. If somebody contests independently, we should charge at least Rs. one million to two million as deposit. If it is a political party which could not secure even one per cent of the votes at the previous election and wants to contest again, we should have a higher deposit rate to discourage them.

To ensure a free and fair election, we must embody a simple electoral system in the Constitution which will not confuse the voters. If we adopt the first-past-the-post system and change the preferential voting system, that will stop a lot of infighting within political parties.

The SLFP voted for the 19A as the then Yahapalana Government pledged to bring in the 20A within two weeks. That is to change the electoral system but that never happened. Therefore, an overall constitutional change would be vital.

Q: The SJB and the JVP have launched a campaign against the 20A saying that it is unfavourable to the country and would pave the way for authoritarian rule. Your comments?

A. That is their argument. What is democracy? Democracy is what the majority of the people want. If the majority of the people decide that they want to abolish the 19A, the SJB which failed at the election has no right to say that it should not be done. We are doing this in a democratic manner by which the Constitution could be changed. Otherwise, the SJB and the JVP should canvas and say not to give 150 votes to pass the 20A. That is the only way they can defeat it. I don’t think they can succeed by making public lectures.

Q: The international community has raised concern on the 20A and the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said that the proposed 20A to the Constitution may impact the independence of key institutions, including the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. What is your comment on this?

A. The international community during the past 10-15 years raised concern about various matters in Sri Lanka which they have no right to do. The fate of the country and the Constitution has to be decided on by the people of Sri Lanka themselves and not by the international community.

What is happening in the US now? For example, US President Donald Trump made many restrictions with regard to their immigration policy. So what can we do? Has the international community rectified those things? It is a matter for that country to adopt a proper process and implement it.

The UK had a referendum to decide whether they should stay in the EU or not. Can the international community ask not to have a referendum and that the UK should be in the EU.

The political decisions of a country are taken by its people democratically; the international community has no stake in it. They want us to establish norms and processes in the manner they adopt in their own countries.

We know the background of our country, its political culture and the needs of the people. If the Executive Presidency is good for the people of Sri Lanka why should we be guided by the norms and the directions of the international community or NGOs? It is up to the people of Sri Lanka to decide their political destiny.

Q: Some say the lack of a vibrant Opposition is not healthy for democracy. At present there’s infighting in the UNP for leadership. How do you look at this scenario?

A. We are not happy with a weak Opposition. The Government always wants a strong Opposition. From the point of checks and balances, it is desirable to have a strong Opposition. There was a time when there were only seven or eight MPs in the Opposition but they were a very vibrant Opposition. It is the quality of the Opposition that matters.

Therefore, the Opposition should learn to make qualitative contribution in Parliament.

They should seriously study the legislation and problems in the country by contributing positively. That is what is expected of the Opposition. Only then will the people admire the Opposition. It is always good to have a strong Opposition for good governance so that the Opposition becomes vibrant and sensitive to the people’s issues.

Q: Some Government lawmakers had told the media that the Constitutional Council (CC) had become a body that fulfils the agenda of NGOs and other foreign powers. Would you elaborate on this?

A. If you take an overall view on what happened during the Yahapalana Government, I think the CC did not select the correct people. For example, serious concerns were raised on the conduct of the Election Commission member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole and the then IGP. I don’t wish to make any presumptions. What happened at the Easter Sunday attacks? The people feel that the CC did not select the correct people for the Commissions.

They never exercised any power and did not prepare any rules and regulations for the conduct of the members of the Commissions.

Once the members were appointed there was no way to remove them. The CC should have formulated its own rules and regulations in such events. For example, Prof.Hoole being a member of the Election Commission went to court against the Election Commission. What is the moral or legal right he has to do so? He proved that the whole EC was a joke. The CC could not take any action against him. That is why we say it is better to do away with the CC.

Q: How do you view the change of northern vote at the recently concluded general election?

A. The TNA has been harping on the devolution issue. The election result shows that what the people in the North and the East want is development, not devolution.

The TNA is following a racial line of politics and the people in the North have understood that. After the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa they have realised that the country has a great leader. So they appreciate the President’s leadership and support him. That is why the TNA vote has come down by 36 per cent.

The TNA was not looking after the welfare of the people in the North and the East. Former Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran had been given an enormous amount of money for that Provincial Council but he did not make use of.

They do not want to show the people of the North that the Government is helping them. They were arguing to get political power, but did not utilise the money and the resources given to develop the North and the East. Hence the people lost faith in the Tamil leadership, especially, the TNA.

The people are now changing their stance and leaning towards the main political parties.