Thursday, February 19, 2015

Prime Minister should not have lists

Turmoil erupted once again in the coalition government as yet another State Minister, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, in charge of Higher Education, threatened to resign. Faizer Musthapha, State Minister for Civil Aviation, resigned not too long ago. The common issue among the increasingly disgruntled ministers is that Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, insists on running a one-man show, not too different from the leadership of the previous regime.
Ceylontoday, 2015-02-18 02:00:00
Prime Minister should not have lists
By Zahrah Imtiaz

Turmoil erupted once again in the coalition government as yet another State Minister, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, in charge of Higher Education, threatened to resign. Faizer Musthapha, State Minister for Civil Aviation, resigned not too long ago. The common issue among the increasingly disgruntled ministers is that Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, insists on running a one-man show, not too different from the leadership of the previous regime.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Prof. Wijesinha

Q:There are rumours that you have resigned from your portfolio as State Minister. Is it true?
A: I told the President that the whole situation is untenable. There are several reasons for this. First, I was upset I was not made a Cabinet Minister as promised in the manifesto.

Q:Was there a promise in the manifesto that you would be made a Cabinet Minister?
A: There is a promise that the Cabinet would consist of representatives of all parties in Parliament. I never asked for this, but two people of enormous significance, myself and present State Minister of Education, V. Radhakrishnan were left out. The Prime Minister called on Saturday and so I mentioned this to him and he asked 'did former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga promise you?"

I had been told that, when they were convincing some people to cross over, some had asked for portfolios and even money. But, those are his problems, and he should not think we are the same. Many of us did not make our decision on the basis of something for ourselves. Radhakrishnan, current Deputy Minister of Tourism and Sports, Wasantha Senanayake, Faizer Mustapha, did not ask for anything as far as I know. But, when I mentioned some cases to the President, he said that in good faith he had entrusted Cabinet portfolios to Wickremesinghe and former President Kumaratunga. He told me to speak to them, but I said this was not something I could do. When President Kumaratunga spoke to me on another matter, and I mentioned the unfortunate way Wasantha had been treated, she told me that she had not been concerned with the UNP, but she had been responsible for making me the Higher Education Minister. I said it was an interesting portfolio, but it was not a Cabinet Ministry as had been pledged. I also pointed out that Wasantha Senanayake had not joined the UNP, and had written to her to this effect beforehand.

The real problem I realized was that President Kumaratunga is not familiar with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) now, and certainly not with the UPFA as it has evolved in recent years. Wickremesinghe got his way and got a predominantly United National Party (UNP) Government. This is most obvious from the appointment of inexperienced Digambaram to the Cabinet while leaving out Radhakrishnan. But, the former was elected from the UNP and the latter is from the UPFA.
Anyway, I agreed to work initially because according to the Constitution I would report directly to the President. A week later, Cabinet Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion, Kabir Hashim, was also appointed Cabinet Minister of Higher Education. But, when I spoke to him, he said he would allow me to handle everything in that area, and also technical education too, as he is also busy with the election in addition to the Highway and Investment Promotion Ministry. Hashim is such a decent and honest man so I thought I could work with him.

What happened next was that they had a meeting with the Federation of University Teachers' Associations (FUTA) and then took decisions. When the problem erupted and I told the Prime Minister about this, he said he had told me to come but I did not. I said I had told his staff I had fixed a lecture at that time, but I could brief him beforehand, but I would be happy to brief them. His staff had failed to tell him that. And then, after the meeting, he did not brief me on what happened. He said he thought Kabir would have briefed me, which did not happen. Instead, Kabir started to act on his own.
First, he ordered my secretary to investigate matters in this ministry. I think they wanted to get material against SB, and that would not be a problem given our commitment to transparency, but they asked my secretary to do something without informing me, which is wrong. So I wrote a letter to Hashim and said that this was extremely unethical behaviour. We are here for good governance after all.

Then, while I was away he had ordered the Chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to resign. Then I had two problems to deal with, one was my position and my ability to act independently, which he had promised me. The second was how to get things done without the UGC. None of these people read the Acts. According to the Act, the minister has no powers. He has the responsibility to ensure that the Act is implemented, and his powers are confined to asking the UGC to do A, B and C. Without a commission what do I do?
The worst thing was that during the last week I had found strong evidence of corruption, so I asked the secretary to appoint a commission to investigate. But, he said he could not do it and that he had to ask the UGC to do that.
I then checked the Act which states clearly that anyone who resigns 'shall' continue to perform until replacements are appointed. So I told the chair she must act but she wanted to go home given the criticism she might face again. But, I told her she should fulfil her responsibilities, in addition to all else there is a great problem about the 2013 and 2014 results and we need to resolve it in a way that benefits students.

Q:When will a new chairperson be appointed?
A: A new one can be appointed any time after her resignation is accepted, but till that is done she must carry on as must her colleagues. So she agreed to carry on and now it seems FUTA is angry with me about it. However, my point is that the work must carry on, we can't sacrifice the entire student population and stop decisions indefinitely.
In the meantime, my position was questionable so I met the President and told him about it and offered my resignation though I mentioned two other possible alternatives. Then Kabir called me and I told him, this was not the correct thing to do, he said he was under a lot of pressure from the FUTA. I told him you don't act under pressure. We are attacking public servants for giving into pressure of the former President and Ministers. One of the charges against UGC Head, Prof. Hirimburegama, is that she did political things under pressure. Kabir said, 'you know she had openly campaigned for the former President, and I told him, he is quite young so may not be aware of this, you forget that this was started by the UNP in the 1980s by getting vice chancellors to sign petitions.'

What we need to do is put in systems and laws which ensure that this does not happen. I suggested that they draw up a code of ethics and remove political rights for officers of the university. Academics can have them but not officers. Officers need to be seen as public servants.

Q:But are they not public officials anyway?
A: No. They are seen as academics. University officials are very keen that they not be seen as public officers, because of the retirement age and all. During the good old days academics did not engage in politics, but since then things have changed, and not just under the last government.

We have to protect people like the Chairman and other public officers from pressure. Giving into FUTA pressure is also the same. It is the duty of the government to put in systems that would protect public servants from such pressure.
To go back to my conversation with Kabir, he said I should not bother, since he would gazette all universities under me so I can decide who the new UGC Chairperson would be. He said there were lists in the Prime Minister's office, and I could pick. But, my point was that there should be no such lists with the Prime Minister. The UGC is appointed by the President. I did not want to have appointments made for political reasons and had said as much to two ministers who had given names for the Jaffna Council. The previous Council had been criticized because it was claimed Douglas Devananda had appointed it. We should not do the same for other politicians, but of course they or their protégés could apply direct to the appointing authority, not through the responsible minister since he should apply no pressure at all.

Kabir had previously asked me if I could appoint some UNP dons to the UGC, but I said that would be inappropriate, and in any case I thought there was no point in a UGC with all academics. You need a mix, some who can provide a world view, business people, educationists, and Kabir agreed. Now I am being asked to look at a Prime Minister's list including I believe a FUTA list too. That would be terrible, to get rid of people they do not like and then appoint those they like, though of course they can make recommendations like anyone else.

I want a system where criteria must be given and reasons for appointments given. FUTA had issued a statement on what kind of UGC they want and that is exactly what I want. But, whereas I would interpret things correctly, others will have a political agenda. FUTA should be pleased with the fact that within a week of my becoming minister, I got the UGC to put on their website their criteria for appointing people to University Councils, and they are welcome to fine tune this, since I believe it should be in the Act, so that future ministers cannot go back to political approaches.

I told Kabir the President did the right thing by asking him to talk to me. I said, 'he didn't go over your head. So he said the best thing is for you to be made cabinet minister and I will recommend that to the PM.' He said he would tell him that last Thursday evening. On Friday I did not talk to media which questioned me, but by Saturday I felt I could not dodge the issue any longer, so I answered media queries.
Then the PM called on Saturday afternoon and asked what the problem was. It turned out that Kabir had not talked to him on Thursday, or the next day. I think he then did speak to Kabir, but I heard nothing, and on Friday with the media pressing I called Kabir, who reiterated his recommendation and said he would speak to the PM and call me back. He did not, but the PM called me that evening and said he needed to speak to President Kumaratunga, who was in England, and would let me know the situation today. As at 3 p.m., I have heard nothing.

Q:It seems that your main point of contention was that you were not given a Cabinet portfolio?
A: No. I agreed to work as a State Minister under the President, and I even went on after Kabir was made the Cabinet Minister. But I was upset when, contrary to his commitment, he began to do things without even consulting me.

Q:Doesn't this seem like an ego trip rather than a matter of policy?
A: It could have been construed perhaps as an ego trip if I had not flung myself into work despite the initial breach of promise, or if I had resigned after Kabir was appointed. But, I think Kabir is a good and honest man, and I thought he was efficient and believed in good governance, so I went on. But then he approached my secretary behind my back and got people to resign, and used the name of the President for this. He said in his letter that it was per a directive of the President, he told me it was under FUTA pressure, and then Ranil said it has nothing to do with FUTA but they had taken a general policy decision to ask all commissioners to resign. Whether that was the reason or not, it would have been a polite thing to do, but that was not in Kabir's letter – which was not even copied to me.
Kabir has since sent me various problems to deal with (some of which I had already dealt with), which will obviously continue to happen if he is called the Cabinet Minister. Then if people don't like what I do they're going to appeal to him. And he should be in a position to say that he doesn't have anything to do with this. In addition, he thinks he has to report everything to the PM and the problem is that the PM thinks he knows everythingHe will not delegate, except to people like Tissa Attanayake it seems, who do not have independent credentials. But, I believe a leader should be able to pick ability over political convenience and I know that, if this continues, whenever there is a politically contentious issue, there will be interference.
One thing I have learnt over the years is that you can do anything if your superiors have confidence in you, but if they don't, you can achieve nothing.

Q:You said, when you were informed about the meeting with FUTA, you had told them you had a lecture to attend. Don't you think that in a moment of crisis, as the State minister you should have given priority to the meeting instead of the lecture?
A: I had fixed a lecture to deliver myself, and it would not have been correct to cancel something which had been long requested, at short notice. Besides, in such a situation the proper thing would have been to refer the problem to me, or to Kabir and me together. But, if the Prime Minister thought his presence was essential, he should have tried to arrange a time with me, or, as I suggested, been briefed by me beforehand and then ensured that I was briefed afterwards. Failing to do any of this is not good governance.
This was the problem with the previous regime too, where the President took everything into his hands, or Basil did. I remember telling John Seneviratne once that he should not let Economic Development usurp all his powers, and he said Economic Development was doing that to everyone. If Ranil Wickremesinghe wants to behave in the exact manner Mahinda Rajapaksa did, he must learn that the same would happen as in 2003, he had a wonderful opportunity in 2001, but he flung it away.

Q:What exactly has been gazetted to you as the State Minister?
A: According to a letter last week, they wanted to give me what the previous minister had. Kabir had previously said he wanted to give me technical education too, which made sense, as well as science and research, which I told him I preferred him to keep. He did not come to the science meeting but when I went to the technical meeting, he also showed up and gave me the impression the PM wanted him to keep these. I told him to speak to the PM and let me know, since before he came I had been giving some ideas to the various institutions under him. He said he would, and let me know, but never did. Only his Secretary told me that they would keep technical education. The PM said this was not his idea, and then Kabir said he had allocated only universities to me because his secretary had advised him to keep technical education. Why I have no idea, nor did Kabir, given that it should clearly go with Higher Education if we are to work swiftly to fulfil at least some of the promises in the manifesto.

Kabir told me that the PM had told him to combine NAITA and VTA, which makes sense, but obviously Kabir and the PM have no idea that there are several institutions working in this field which need consolidation. And if he wants to look after technical education, he should be responsible too for SLIATE, but that has been passed back to Higher Education. I am not sure that his secretary has worked in education before, so why he only took his advice is beyond me. Contrariwise, that has been one of my concerns in the last few years, and I had written so much about it to the previous minister that he instructed his secretary to have a meeting of all institutions in that area to discuss issues with me.

Q:What exactly do you have?
A: Not me, but the State Ministry of Higher Education has I believe the UGC and 15 universities under that, two Buddhist universities and the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education.

Q:When will the new commission be appointed?
A I have no idea. The old one was supposed to meet on the 16th and Kabir said there are lists for a new one to be appointed but no one has told me whether the resignations have been accepted or not. At the moment there are only four UGC members remaining. Two resigned earlier and I immediately recommended names to the President, and one passed away recently. But, I am not going to go through names until the resignations have been accepted, and I know I can recommend. The minister cannot ask the UGC to resign. The correct way is for the President to ask for it through his secretary. When I asked the President, he said he did not know about it.
I gather that letters of resignation were sent to Kabir, I am not sure whether he has forwarded them to the President.

Q:FUTA has been protesting against the UGC chairperson. There are a number of allegations of political favouritism against her. Her husband is the Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University, which she is supposed to oversee. How can she not be partial?
A: I think this person being appointed Colombo VC was a mistake, and I have suggested he resign, but I can do nothing if he will not listen. The problem is, he had stood for election, and though she should have dissuaded him, if he insisted, that was his right.

Q:But he got the lowest number of votes?
A: No, I checked that. He got the second highest.

Q:Why wasn't the highest given the post?
A: According to the chairperson she didn't know. She said she didn't sit at the meeting and that the UGC had decided to give him the post. But, this is not the first time this has happened. I remember blatant discrimination against my own Vice-Chancellor when he got the most votes by far and then the UGC refused to put forward his name. That is why I believe there should be greater transparency in the process, and also any appointing authority must make public its rationale for choices.

I personally believe that the Colombo VC is not the right person for the job and after various improper replies about exam problems, I have asked the UGC to investigate the matter (though unfortunately the UGC was dismissed so no inquiry board can be appointed). But I should note that there are no blatant allegations of financial irregularities against him. One of the issues was a problem in the examinations and one candidate had not been treated fairly, I asked him for an explanation and he wrote back an idiotic letter not worthy of an academic.

The rest you really need to prove.
With regard to his appointment, the President may have appointed him with or without her involvement. You must realize that one of the key tactics of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was to grant favours and then lay people under obligation. Many people told me I should not have been so critical because I had been appointed to Parliament, but my point was I had not been appointed to Parliament as a favour, and I felt no obligation at all.