Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Democracy, constitutions and politicians: what citizens need to know

Shammi has reminded me that today is my blog's birthday. I was not sure so I had to go back and check, but it indeed the anniversary.  What shocked me is that it has been nine years since I started.

It seems a very long time indeed. Ironically I started with a post criticising the President, shortly after he was elected to office and seem to have spent much of the time since criticising his administration.

I have been playing around with a primer on democracy. It's not finished yet but now that I feel obliged to put up something to celebrate the annivesary here it is.

Democracy is a highly complex political system. The original meaning of the term “democracy” was rule by the people, as opposed to rule by a monarch. In practice it meant rule by the people’s representatives.

In a democracy the ruler is only a representative, a servant of the people. The problem is that once elected, the servant is tempted to become the master. If he controls the state he becomes a king. How do we prevent this?

In a democracy this is prevented by:
a.      Not giving power to a single person. Sounds simple, but how is it done? Principally by sharing power.
Power is shared between several bodies including:
                           i.          Parliament, which makes laws. The president cannot make laws. Laws must be made by parliament.
                          ii.          The parliament itself has both government MP’s and the opposition MP’s. The opposition is there to ensure that parliament is simply not a rubber stamp of the president or the Government .
                         iii.          The laws made by parliament must be obeyed by all. But if an unjust law is passed what happens? People should be able to go to court to challenge the law. This is why independent courts and a judiciary are necessary. Judges are appointed independently and can review and change laws if they are not in keeping with the constitution or are otherwise unjust.
                         iv.          Laws are administered and enforced by the police and public servants. Appointments to the police and the public service must not be under the control of the president or ministers. If the police and public service are appointed by ministers/president, they only do what the politician’s want, not what the people need. This is why we need an independent police force and administration. Entrants to the police and public service should be chosen by way of competitive exam and the promotions, salaries and transfers must be determined by an independent commission. Not the MP’s, not the president.
                          v.          Many of the controls that limit power described above are set out in the constitution. This is why the constitution is important-it sets out the limits on power.

b.      Keeping the people informed of events. Despite all the checks above things can still go wrong. In order to correct anything we need to know what has gone wrong, so the media should be free. The Government should not own media outlets or control what is broadcast through censorship or by licensing. People should be free to criticise the rulers.
           The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life. It is not only the president and the parliament who have a say. Ordinary citizens should also take and interest and participate in political debate, either as individuals or in groups. Groups that participate in political debate are usually called Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) – because they participate in politics but are not a part of the Government. Participation by citizens must be encouraged because along with the media they can help inform the people of what is happening.

Based on this scale how do we rank democracy in Sri Lanka today? Citizens need to observe and make up their own minds but here are some facts that they should consider:


1.      Parliament – opposition MP’s have been bought over by giving various ministerial positions and fat salaries. This is why we have a jumbo cabinet – opposition ministers are bribed to vote with the Government and no longer check power.

2.      Appointment of judges is no longer independent. The Chief Justice was removed arbitrarily and replaced by a Presidential aide. This has both weakened the independence of the judiciary and placed it under presidential control.

3.      Independent police and public service commissions have been removed. The independent commissions were set up under the 17th amendment which has now been repealed. All appointments, promotions, transfers are now subject to political control.  If police or public servants do not carry out political orders they will be punished (transferred, denied promotions or increments). They no longer serve the people.

4.       By eliminating the independent media and demonising NGO’s the government has prevented full participation by citizens.

These are just some of the issues, there are others that do not come immediately to mind but if citizens observe political processes carefully and understand the importance of process and procedure they will easily detect abuse.



Sunday, November 16, 2014

More expropriation of assets: estate companies now in the gunsights of the Government

The Government has issued a menacing statement on the status of the privatised estate companies warning that "underpeforming" companies would be taken over by the Government.

Taken at face value the statement seems innocuous - what is wrong with cancelling the lease and taking over something that is underperforming?

The question is, what is defined as "underperforming" ? Returns below par?  Losses? For a start, lets assume that the definition means a company that is making losses.

The next question is: who bears the losses of a private company ? The answer is the financiers of the company - the shareholders and the banks. What happens when the State takes over the company?

The state becomes the financier-and naturally assumes responsibility for the losses. This means taxpayers and citizens. Why are we in an unseemly hurry to impose additional burdens on the public?

Any losses are a burden on the public, unless, by some magic, performance improves under Government control.  We have plenty of evidence to the contrary

For example Srilankan Airlines was consistently profitable under the management of Emirates. The Government, in a fit of pique, took over the airline, paying Emirates US$53m for its stake. Last year Srilankan lost some Rs.30.1bn (around US$231m). In just one year, the State managed to lose almost 5 times its original investment, a truly mind boggling feat.

The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) in its review for 2012 reported that only 11 of  235 state enterprises reported a profit. This should be sufficient evidence to stay the case against any state interference to "improve" management in any so called "underperforming" business. Things will be infinitely worse in the hands of the State.

This also raises an interesting question on the remaining estates owned and managed by the JEDB and the SLSPC. Not all the estates were privatised, there were some that were unsaleable at the time and these remained in State hands.

An excellent test of the Government's fitness to manage estates would be to publish a summary of the performance for the Government estates for each year between 1992 and 2014. We need the basic crop/yield figures, selling price per kilogramme, the turnover and the net profits or losses.

This can then be compared with a similar summary of the performance of the privatised estates. To be fair, what we need to compare is the relative change in finances (in percentages) from the starting position of 1992.  It does not matter if the State companies are still making losses, what we need to know if the position is better of worse against the starting point, with similar information on the private sector.

We can then draw an informed conclusion on the wisdom of this latest proposal en route to our Nationalist, Socialist Utopia,  

Related post: Felling Timber on estates to pay EPF/ETF dues.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Ranil’s House Of Tards - A response to Indi

Indi has written something more on the election, specifically on what appears to be the opposition's main platform-the abolishing of the executive presidency.

He highlights an issue that also worries me "Nobody is going to put themselves out of a job to see some other mutton-chop get it. "

This is a real danger. Power, once tasted is rarely given up. Remember that CBK  promised to abolish the presidency when she campaigned in 1994? She then went on to serve both presidential terms. What guarantee do we have that even if an opposition candidate wins, the presidency will be abolished?

No real guarantee at all. If it is a joint candidate or a coalition pushing for the abolishment there is a slightly better chance- the coalition partners or alliance will have to hold the incumbent to the promise-and the deed will need to be done in the white-hot heat of the immediate aftermath. Any delay will be fatal.

As an added safeguard, the steps or the process that will be followed to abolish the presidency must be made public as part of the campaign. it may include the formation of a constitutional committee, perhaps with international observers to guarantee that its objectives will be met.

People will then understand that there is a serious process in place to which some thought has been applied, not simply an electioneering slogan or gimmick.This will naturally add weight and substance to an opposition campaign.

An interim option could be that the 1978 Constitution be repealed entirely immediately on the change, restoring the 1972 constitution.  My personal preference would be for the restoration of the 1946 constitution, the only truly good one that we had but it is politically impossible - the name of the country, the position of Buddhism being two of the issues that no politician will contemplate touching. The next best thing is the 1972 constitution. Flawed though it is, it is better than what we have.

Under the 1972 Constitution the office of the president will still remain, but in a purely ceremonial role.  This will also have the added benefit of abolishing the evil provincial councils and banishing the horrible creatures who inhabit those bodies to eternal political limbo.

The constitutional committee can then either make amendments to the 1972 one or have the fresh on drafted. I wonder if the UN or some other body has a template of a constitution that can be adopted rapidly with few changes?

Any further thoughts on this?