What can National Council achieve that parliamentary panels cannot?

What can National Council achieve that parliamentary panels cannot?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

By its very definition and design, the National Council, formed under a resolution unanimously passed by Parliament, has no place in the nation’s constitutional scheme. If left unchecked, it can create more divisions than guiding Parliament to solve the nation’s problems.

To begin with the choice of Parliament Speaker to chair the National Council is wrought with self-contradiction. This is not to attribute motives to incumbent Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena though there is still the possibility that those opposed to the majority view in the National Council might end up casting aspersions centred on bias and partiality, as they often do in Parliament.

The National Council is a different animal. It may be called upon to vote on issues, as they do in Parliament. The Speaker acting as chair in the National Council and as himself in Parliament may be called upon to over-rule the decision of the former in the latter forum, which alone has the legislative teeth.

This may happen especially in a fluid political situation, where large-scale defections could alter the numbers inside the House.  The office of the Speaker, who otherwise continues to act as the constitutional agent of the political party in power, will unnecessarily be dragged into additional, avoidable public debate.

Likewise, if the idea is to tie down the government to the guidance provided by the National Council, the President would have been the best person to chair the National Council. Alternatively, the Prime Minister would have been the acceptable alternative. Not the Speaker, whose role in Parliament is tantamount to a Supreme Court Justice, though only in a limited way.

Hour of grave crisis

There is denying the need for a national consensus that went beyond party positions and their numbers in Parliament, especially in this hour of grave crisis, especially on the economic front. But could it not have been done in a more formal and formalised way than through a National Council?

For instance, parliamentary panel hearings, with limited exceptions pertaining to national security sensitivities, could have been telecast, so could their reports be publicised more widely than at present. More importantly, like in the US, House panels could become more issue-centric and people-friendly.

They could suo motu summon acknowledged experts in select fields for gathering their views not stopping with representatives of political parties that have no representation in the House. Or, it could publicise the issues involved, still be open about it and finalise the agenda for their sessions after evaluating comments and suggestions that might have been received in the interim.

Unconstitutional conceptualisation

The idea of a National Council to guide Parliament on policy matters flowed from the reality of the people-centric Aragalaya protests achieving what Parliament and political parties could not do. That is forcing the exit of elected government leaders through unending civilian protests that were mostly peaceful but whose organisation involved a lot of scheming derived from unconstitutional conceptualisation.

Does it mean that the creation of a National Council is an inverted acknowledgement of what was patently unconstitutional, and hence undemocratic to begin with? Or, is it an eternally creative way of the political masters to dilute the spirit and defeat the purpose of what Aragalaya organisers wanted institutionalised.

With this in mind alone, President Ranil Wickremesinghe named a panel headed by predecessor Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, for forming near-similar committees at lower-levels of civil administration and people’s representation. How political and administrative types are going to react on a daily basis to the functions of those panels, as and when set up, require some wait-and-watch.

Bottom-up approach

The inaugural session of the National Council has set up two sub-committees, one each on National Policy and Economic Stabilisation. While welcome in principle, this will require a bottom-up approach, for which the policy-maker and political leadership(s) have to attune themselves have to prepare themselves and also their cadre-representatives at other levels.

It is a good idea, but only in principle, to absorb, grassroots-level inputs that are not political in nature for policy-making. In the case of the economic sub-committee, inputs from the street, on prices and inflation, availability and absorption all matter the most in policy-making.

In ways, it is more about social stabilisation than economic stabilisation, which at this given point is much more complex and at the macro-level. Downgrading it to the micro-level just now would either end up in the leadership(s) cheating the people, or cheating themselves or both.

Also, there is no clarity if the National Policy sub-committee, or the National Council as a whole, would be privy to discussing and/or guiding the nation’s security and foreign policies. Thus far, there have been no major complaints about parliamentary panel members ‘leaking’ security-related secrecy shared with them.

Aragalaya point of view, but…

This apart, the National Council is empowered to summon the reports of various parliamentary committees. While again welcome from an Aragalaya point of view, would it entail Parliament sharing top-secret documents shared by security agencies with House panels, with the national Council? If so, will it not be a way to circumvent secrecy policies in existence? Will it not then force even honest officials in the nation’s security apparatus to seek to circumvent sharing of sensitive information, even with Parliament?

In the absence of powers and responsibilities as conferred upon Parliament, can the National Council or sub-committees now in existence or may be formed in future, seek out classified information from agencies tasked with the nation’s security, which in these days of economic crisis, could involve data and information on the nation’s fiscal and monetary health.

In many ways, they can cover, and should cover, ‘non-traditional security’ aspects like health and education. But are they all in the mandate of the National Council and its sub-committees, whether specified or voted in, later? If so, who should be the authority, whether the National Council or Parliament?

Serving larger purpose

There is a silver-lining still. The parliamentary resolution says that the National Council will include members of the incumbent, ninth Parliament, implying that it would be co-terminus with the life of the current Parliament. Or, will questions arise that the National Council minus parliamentary representation may have a life of its own, and that flushing out MPs might serve the larger purpose and vision of the Aragalaya movement.

Then, there is the precedent set by the greedy political class even of the non-Rajapaksa kind, who created a constitutionally-mandated Government of National Unity (GNU) after Elections-2015. The sole purpose of the exercise was to create more ministerial positions than was already sanctioned, for accommodating all those wanted to be ministers, so to say. In a way, it was closer to President Mahinda Rajapaksa naming almost all ruling party MPs as ministers in his first term (2005-10).

At the end of the day, the GNU proved to be far less ‘united’ than used to be the case without it in the past. It was meant to be a farce and ended up as a farce. Anyone wants to take a bet on the National Council now?

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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