For a more responsible Parliament | Daily News

For a more responsible Parliament

Sri Lanka's Parliament on Wednesday set a record -albeit a dubious one- of having the lowest attendance of members while a vote was being taken. A total of 195 MPs out of 225 member House were absent during the vote on the Rehabilitation Bureau Bill. This was reported to be the lowest turnout of MPs in Parliament in 45 years when the number of MPs was increased to 225 in terms of the 1978 Constitution. And to think that Parliament is spending Rs. 8.5 million on a single day's sittings. Isn’t this an utter waste of money at a time the economy is in the doldrums and at a time the Government is finding it difficult to pay the salaries of public servants and pensions? Could this also not be a case of contempt shown towards the voters by their erstwhile representatives? Why have dog fights and even commit murder during election battles to enter Parliament if MPs are going to give a wide berth to Parliament sittings in this regular fashion, instead of justifying their election by taking up matters affecting the public in the August Assembly. The reasons are plain. 

Entering Parliament for some is the sole means of feathering one's nest and going places as has been proved in the case of many MPs. It is widely being said that those who did not even have a push cycle when they entered Parliament were today in possession of SUVs and owners of luxury mansions.   

Chronic absenteeism in the country's supreme legislature is not a new phenomenon. Many have been the occasions where the Speaker had called for the quorum bell to be rung to summon MPs from wherever they are in the Parliament building. Most often when important debates are being taken up the Minister in charge of the subject under discussion has been absent. They are either resting in their ministry offices or out of Parliament. 

The relevant Ministers are also not there to answer the Oral Questions raised by the Opposition prior to the commencement of the proceedings, which essentially has a bearing on the public. Our erstwhile people's representatives appear simply not to care. Why should they? They are paid princely emoluments, enjoy lavish perks including the small matter of duty free luxury vehicles which they dispose of and keep the millions for themselves, free foreign travel, highly subsidized luxury meals (There was a former fair MP who insisted on having Australian Golden Syrup included in the Parliament breakfast menu), free postage, fuel, armed security, and staff in the case of ministers which more often than not are their spouses as Private Secretaries, plus kith and kin and progeny all paid for by the public. And on top of that they are even getting an allowance for attending Parliament - never mind that it is for this purpose that the voters elected them in the first place.  

When Ranasinghe Premadasa was the President, he ordered for all Government MPs to be present in Parliament at every sitting and kept a close watch on those who played truant. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena should take steps to put out a list of all those MPs who keep away from Parliament sittings often so that the public are made aware of the degree of interest their representatives take in them. 

There was at one time a proposal to remove MPs who failed to attend Parliament sittings for one third of the total sittings of the year. This rule should now be implemented to force MPs not to trifle with their responsibilities towards the public. The presence of MPs in the House to obtain answers to the problems affecting the public are much more urgent today than at any time before, given the unprecedented hardships they are forced to undergo due to the dire economic situation. MPs should be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot shirk their duties by playing truant in this manner. They owe it to the voters who sent them to Parliament to espouse their cause and find answers to their problems. After all, they are looked after and maintained by the public who finance their luxury lifestyles. Being absent in Parliament is akin to MPs' deserting their own voters, for Parliament is the only forum where the voice of the public can be heard effectively and with authority.  

It is due to this casual approach on the part of our people's representatives coupled with their poor grasp of the subjects discussed in Parliament that today there are loud calls for the quality of Parliament to be improved by sending educated and intelligent persons, professionals to our legislature to fill in the yawning gap. Needless to say, a majority of the MPs are all at sea when it comes to understanding Bills and Motions presented to the House. This could be why they resort to heavy handed tactics and bellow meaningless rhetoric to cover up this deficiency. Most members, even if they are present in Parliament at all sittings, are of little or no use due to the paucity in their knowledge. It was reported sometime back that as much as one third of our present crop of Parliamentarians had not passed their GCE (O/Level) examinations while some among them were school dropouts. The conduct of some certainly could be a reflection of this situation. 

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