Party Leaders Agree on 37-Member Council

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In a Parliament, in which some members look for areas of disagreement rather than commonality, there was a rare consensus, at least in principle, on the proposed establishment of a National Council consisting of all the parties represented in Parliament.

After discussing several proposals at Wednesday’s meeting, the party leaders agreed to establish a 37-member National Council to assist the attempts to find solutions to the economic and social crisis in the country.

The party leaders agreed that the proposed Council would strengthen the August House of people’s representatives and came up with several constructive proposals and positive ideas for the final draft. Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena presented a preliminary draft, which contained the Government’s proposal regarding the establishment of sectoral monitoring committees in Parliament.

The party leaders said the aim of the National Council should be to guide to take policy decisions by common consent of the parties in Parliament. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), and several others. The Secretary-General of Parliament also took part in the meeting.

According to the agreement, the Speaker will hold the Chair of the National Council and the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the House, and the Chief Organiser of the ruling party will become ex-officio members. The 37 members will include representatives who are ex-officio members and representatives of all political parties in Parliament.

The proposal pertaining to the establishment of the National Council will soon be presented to the House.

This agreement came after Prime Minister Gunawardena called on all political parties to expedite the formation of the National Council by submitting their proposals at the last meeting held at the Parliament complex.

The plans to introduce a new committee system to strengthen Parliament’s financial powers, as well as a National Committee to make the President and Prime Minister answerable to Parliament was made to devolve more powers to people’s representatives.

As a result of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Parliament was weakened and the Executive obtained more powers.

“One of the main accusations today is that Parliament is not working to end this economic crisis. The powers vested with Parliament will increase through the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, however, we cannot be satisfied by that alone,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe said, commenting on the proposed amendment when he was the Prime Minister.

He stated that there is also an allegation that under the current Westminster system, the Cabinet Ministers control everything, and due to the ruling party having a majority in the House, the affairs of Parliament were neglected. “We don’t always have to keep questioning what happened in the past. However, there needs to be a system to include Parliament in the governance of this country,” he said.

“At the same time, we need to have transparency. The MPs of all parties need to convene those committees and work according to their policies and programmes, that is the environment we are creating,” he elaborated.

He stated that the existing laws need to be strengthened if Parliament is to be given powers to execute financial programmes. He also said the Government is preparing to pass a set of new financial regulations after taking a look at the existing laws. 

President Wickremesinghe said when he was the Prime Minister that there are three committees related to the State’s financial affairs and that the then Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena has presented several proposals to further empower these committees.

He said in addition to these measures, a proposal will also be put forward to establish two more finance-related committees, which include a “Committee on Ways and Means” and a “Committee on Banking and Financial Services.”

He said these five finance committees and ten oversight committees will be chaired by backbencher MPs, and not Cabinet Ministers.

He also proposed to establish a National Council comprising the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, and the leaders of the major parties.

After assuming the Presidency, he entrusted the task of conducting talks with party leaders to get their views on the National Council to new Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Speaking on the importance of this National Council, President Wickremesinghe said it could discuss the country’s policies and the decisions of the Cabinet, as well as discuss parliamentary reforms. He said it would be a political council with the authority to summon Cabinet and the committee chairs.  

Referring to the demands made by the youth, he said, “If there are any young representatives for this, those appointed separately, we can also consider that.”

Under the new system, the President, the Cabinet of Ministers, the committees, and the National Council need to be answerable to Parliament, and thereby complete power will be vested in the House of people’s representatives.

After obtaining the views of the respective parties in writing regarding the proposal drafted, a new and improved draft incorporating the ideas presented by party leaders was prepared for last Wednesday’s meeting. The Government’s proposal to set up 17 sectoral monitoring committees and add 3 more to the existing 12 standing committees was also presented to the party leaders.

The long and arduous consultations conducted by Prime Minister Gunawardena with political party leaders has finally come up with an agreement on establishing a National Council comprising the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, and the leaders of the major parties, a rare positive sign among political divisions.

By Sugeeswara Senadhira