Parliament and Public Accountability in Sri Lanka
Author: Prof. W.A. Wiswa Warnapala
Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, currently Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, is an academic of distinction. He has written a number of books on politics, governance and civil service administration in Sri Lanka. His current publication entitled, "Parliament and Public Accountability in Sri Lanka" is the most recent addition to a growing corpus.
In a book running to 336 pages of text, he has concentrated his attention on the origins, development and the current state of financial administration in government with particular emphasis on the Parliamentary Control of public finance.
In nine chapters and an introduction, Prof. Warnapala has dealt with the varied and relevant areas, such as the structure and functioning of Parliamentary Committees; financial procedures; The Public Accounts Committee; The Committee on Public Enterprises; the Role of the Auditor General; and the Role of the Treasury.
He has then gathered up all the threads in two concluding chapters entitled "Comparative Overview" and "Concept of Good Governance and Public Accountability." A very useful and comprehensive Bibliography comes at the very end of the book.
In his book, Prof. Warnapala traces the influence and impress of British Parliamentary traditions and experience on our own Parliament which are reflected in numerous ways. Even the Standing Orders of Parliament have been formulated on the basis of the Westminster tradition.
He also demonstrates the strengths of these traditions and their influence on many Commonwealth legislatures. He then traces the development of Sri Lanka's Parliamentary institutions from the earliest days of British rule, referring to the Legislative Council, the State Council and the current Parliament.
Much effort has gone into outline the historical development of these bodies and the changes that took place through various phases of negotiations and struggle in which the legislative body acquired increasing power and gradually began to represent the people in the modern democratic sense.
A great deal of research and scholarship have gone into the unraveling of this complex story thereby turning this took into a valuable work of reference, with dates, names and phases clearly placed in the overall historical setting.
Beyond the subject of the evaluation of the legislature, Prof. Warnapala has recorded several matters of great importance and interest.
These include the setting up of the Consolidated Fund and the Contingencies Fund; the growth and expansion of Parliamentary Committees, with special emphasis on more recent developments such as the setting up of the Committee on Public Enterprises and Consultative Committees covering the work of various ministries of government.
He has also comprehensively dealt with the role and function of the Treasury in national financial management, the role of the Auditor General and the gradual evolution of that Office from its earliest British roots to its current status, and the complex nature of the responsibilities and inter-relationships that pervade and prevail in the course of the functioning of the Treasury; the Auditor General and the relevant Parliamentary Committees, most notably the Public Accounts Committee and The Committee on Public Enterprise.
Into this picture, he brings in the responsibilities of the ministries in proper financial management and the role of the Secretary to the Ministry as the Chief Accounting Officer.
The book is valuable for a number of reasons. These include giving the reader an overall picture of the manifold aspects of Public Finance; the historical evolution of institutions; the setting out of the relationships between the relevant institutions; recording of important names, dates and phases; the conducting of a comparative analysis of Sri Lanka's institutions and those of some Commonwealth Countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some countries in the Carribean, as well as those countries within S.A.A.R.C. such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal; and the relating of all these to the concept and expectations of good governance.
At the same time, Professor Warnapala has paid particular attention to the role of the Auditor General and the responsibilities and functioning of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament of which he was Chairman from 1995-2000.
His insights therefore are particularly valuable because they combine academic research and learning and a deep interest in his subject with the practical experience derived from chairing perhaps the most important Committee of Parliament.
In his chapter on the Auditor General, Prof. Warnapala places matters in historical perspective tracing the institutions of the office in Britain and then sourcing its inception in Sri Lanka to the time of Governor North who had created the office of the Auditor and Accounts General as early as 1798, and the conversion of the office as a separate department from 1815.
He then traces subsequent developments which are in turn related to gradual constitutional development, and brings the story upto contemporary times, where the role of the Auditor General is seen to be considerably enhanced.
The reasons for these enhancements are given, the main one being the growth of government and its by now exponential financial outlays when compared to the pre-independence situation.
Professor Warnapala quotes Sir Ivor Jennings on the role of the Auditor General. Jennings had in earlier times, seen the Auditor General's functions as relating to monitoring efficiency and regularity in the area of public finance and reporting on accounting procedures.
He has gone on to state that "It is not his business to decide whether the country is receiving value for its money." But this has all changed and today the Auditor General conducts value for money audits.
According to Mr. Soysa's views, the Auditor General ".. is allowed to comment on policy from a financial point of view, and it does not mean that he can determine policy."
While this is basically true, Prof. Warnapala shows how increasingly the Auditor General has come to sometimes question wider areas of policy than was the practice of few years ago. In overall terms, what is stressed is the Auditor General's independence of reporting and independence of investigation.
In dealing with the Public Accounts Committee too, Prof. Warnapala, in accordance with the framework of his book, places it in its historical context.
Having done so, he marshals many relevant and useful insights into the responsibilities and the working of the Committee. In doing so, he quotes from the 20th Edition of Erskine May 1983 as follows:
"The Public Accounts Committee does not seek to concern itself with policy; its interest is in whether policy is carried out efficiently, effectively and economically. Its main functions are to see that public moneys are applied for the purposes prescribed by Parliament, that extravagance and waste are minimized and that sound financial transactions are encouraged in estimating and contracting and in administration generally."
Prof. Warnapala adds that the basic functions of the P.A.C. are to see that money is spent as Parliament intended; to ensure the due exercise of economy and to maintain high standards of public morality in financial matters. As to modalities of functioning and the general environment, he states that the approach of the Committee is "more judicial than political."
Whilst commenting on the functioning of the Committee, Prof. Warnapala refers to the problems of obtaining and maintaining a quorum and bemoans the limited interest of members of Parliament in the proceedings of this important Committee.
This, he attributes partly to the busy nature of a parliamentarian's life, but at the same time he does not shun certain hard truths, when he states that "In Sri Lanka, the quality of the M.P. especially in relation to educational background and proficiency in English, has declined in the past three decades and this has had an effect on the use and functioning of certain vital Parliamentary instruments of control."
Both in the work of the P.A.C. as well as the Committee on Public Enterprise, Prof. Warnapala refers to the lack of adequate financial and human resources to service these committees as well as the disinclination of many members of Parliament to study the material that would be discussed at a particular sitting.
While these are serious drawbacks, another serious flaw that he has identified is the non-allocation of Parliamentary time to discuss the reports of these committees, due to a variety of reasons. In his view, these issues must be addressed in the cause of greater efficiency and accountability in the deployment of public funds.
Some of the views expressed by Prof. Warnapala are debatable, such as his concern about the outsourcing of portions of government audit to private auditors, and the view that the obstacle created by the Fiscal (management) Responsibility Act to the channelling of various benefits to the electorate during a determined period before a general election being a barrier to the independence of governmental action.
Different and logically argued views do exist on issues such as these. They do not however, detract from the usefulness of the book. These are areas that rightly stimulate thought.
In summing up his book, therefore, Prof. Wiswa Warnapala is seen to have combined historical, constitutional, scholarly and critical insights and commented on structures and processes covering the whole vast area of public finance and the Parliamentary control of public finance.
This is a valuable work of reference into which a great deal of reading, research and experience have gone. It constitutes an almost indispensable handbook for the legislator, administrator, scholar and student and all those who are interested in the subject of governance as it relates to the public sector.
The cover and the layout of the book is appealing and pleasing to the eye. The book, however, in my view, deserved a greater attention to proof reading in its final stages.
It is a pity that a number of printing errors have crept in which distracts the reader and detracts somewhat from its overall impact. I do hope that this matter would be attended to in a second edition. The overall value of the book do deserve an early second edition.
- M.D.D. Pieris
Secretary to the Prime Minister, Secretary to the Ministries of Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives, Public Administration; Provincial Council and Home Affairs' and Education and Higher Education. "