01 September 2014

By way of tribute to Sam Wijesinghe

Pic courtesy Sunday Observer
Sam Wijesinghe, former Secretary General of Parliament, passed away last night at the age of 93.  I interviewed him about 12 years ago but sadly don't have the transcript.  I can't find it on the web either.  But in April 2004, when there was a lot of excitement over the election of the Speaker, Editor of the Sunday Island Manik de Silva asked me to talk with Sam Wijesinghe about 'close elections'.  I was at the Sunday Island at the time. In fact, since I left at the end of April 2004, this is probably the last interview I did.  I reproduce it below by way of tribute to a much-respected civil servant.   

The rumpus reviewed

Sam Wijesinha, who was Secretary General of Parliament for 18 years and was ombudsman for another 10, is widely recognized as an authority on parliamentary tradition and procedure. On April 22, when the marathon vote for speaker was taken, he was watching the entire process from the public gallery. He had much to say about what happened and about close votes in law-making assemblies such as the parliament, not just in recent times, but as far back as 1864. When such an authority speaks, one listens. This is what the Sunday Island recorded.

The election of speaker is essentially a trial of strength. The government wants their candidate to win and the opposition hopes he won’t.

In 1936, at a time when the terms "government" and "opposition" did not exist, the National Congress nominated Francis de Zoysa, a King’s Counsel, outstanding lawyer and prominent figure in the Congress for the speaker’s post. Although there was no opposition, Phillip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera thought they would challenge the old order and put forward an extremely experienced politician as their candidate. Vaityalingam Doraisamy had represented the Northern Province in the legislative assembly in the 20s. There was a third candidate. Charles Batuwanthudawe, another Congress stalwart and a State Council Minister in 1931.

In the first ballot Batuwanthudawe came third, but neither of the other candidates could secure more than 50%. The second vote was a contest between the other two and each got 29 out of a possible 58 votes. In the 3rd poll, Doraisamy got 30 and Zoysa 28. It was revealed later that Mr. Abeygunasekera (Nuwara Eliya), who was seated close to the Marxist twins, was politely but forcibly persuaded to vote for their candidate. Doraisamy was speaker for 12 years and received a knighthood in the process. He was popular and his impartiality is legendary.

The next contest resulting in defeat was in March 1960, when Dudley was asked to form a minority government with a bare 40 out of a total of 100 MPs. The UNP candidate for speaker was Sir Albert F Peiris. He was defeated by T.B. Subasinghe.

Generally the defeat of a government candidate at the very first trial of strength is an indication of the relative strength of the parties and so it is in this case. Regardless of the optimism expressed before the election, the final result is a warning to the government that their programme of new laws may not be as successful as they hoped.

The speaker is expected to hold the scales even and be impartial in any question that arises. Generally, speakers have acted fairly, leaving little room for accusations of partisanship. Being human, they also make mistakes.

Thursday’s election began calmly. The ballot papers were distributed and the MPs were told to write the name of the candidate their prefer out of the two whose names were proposed and seconded. But as some walked out with the ballot papers, points of order were raised and there was pandemonium for more than 45 minutes. Members were shouting at each other and behaving in a very boisterous way. It was impossible to see any order.

There are many criticisms, but if one reflects calmly on the exhibition of very poor behaviour, one concludes that this is a very fine indication of the lack of discipline in the whole country. We are not a nation used to listening. We talk without allowing someone else to say something. If this is not stopped in schools and houses, we will never be a nation of polite listeners. The representatives of the people represent them in their very shortfall of good manners.

Of the vote itself, it is difficult to understand the order in which members were called upon to vote. It looked like the government went first. I think it was unfair. They should have been called to vote, as is normally done, according to alphabetical order (of one of the three languages).

Some members of the government side who came up to vote started showing their ballot paper, like a prize winner shows a trophy that has been won. This conduct gathered momentum as voting went on. But no one had the courage to say this should stop, it being a secret ballot, even though I doubt that people could see what was written, given the distance.

During the first ballot, which took well over two hours, there was comparatively good behaviour from both sides. When the result was announced and it was a tie, lot of people didn’t realize that according to procedures, you must have a second ballot.

Remarks were cast at the monks who walked out with their ballot papers. It was presumed that the two who decided to vote (sitting with the government and later with the other monks) voted for the government side.

During the second ballot, disorder burst out. Allegations and counter-allegations were being flung around and the conduct became so boisterous that the second vote had to be stopped.

The Secretary General, clearly exhausted, walked away. Most of the members went out, presumably for lunch and came back for the third fight, during which the monks who had not voted, voted, a decision made to counter the two who broke ranks. This effectively nullified the effect of the monks’ votes for one side. I believe the decision of the two monks who decided to vote on the third ballot was not so much to be partisan but negate the advantages that resulted from the conduct of the 2 who had broken ranks.

Ultimately the opposition candidate emerged winner by a single vote. The result was accepted by the house. It was well after 7.00 p.m. when they departed.

The occasion was not, as anarchic as made out by a large number of television exposures. The boisterous period was comparatively short, compared with the almost 10 hours of proceedings in the house. We can look forward to peaceful parliamentary activity especially now since the relative strengths of the two sides is fairly well established. There is nothing to say that the presence of a speaker from the opposition will invariably make government impossible. In England, Betty Boothroyd was elected by the conservatives because she was doing an excellent job as speaker.

With regard to the numbers, of votes, seats and percentages, let us remember that in 1956, the UNP got over 800,000 votes but secured only 8 seats whereas the MEP, with approximately a million votes got 60. Each UNP seat was worth 89,000 votes and each MEP one 17,500!

In 1970 the UNP polled 19 lakhs and got 17 seats while the others polled just 18 lakhs for 91 seats. In this case, the UNP had to get 111,500 votes per seat while the others had to poll only 20,250 per seat.
In 1977, the UNP with 32 lakhs, won 140 seats, while the SLFP got only 8 for the 12 lakhs they polled. One seat was secured for every 23,000 votes polled by the UNP and in the case of the opposition, they had to poll 148,000 per seat.

Therefore too much should not be made of the 700,000 votes the Alliance got over the UNP.

In retrospect, what JR Jayewardene wanted to do with the 1978 constitution is to ensure that people get a fair number of seats for votes polled in the entire country. The present parliament has 166 Sinhalese, 37 Tamils, 21 Muslims and 1 Parsee. The minorities add up to 59, which is 26%. The problem is that for other reasons the 1978 constitution is unworkable. It was geared for JR.

It is not only the election of the speaker that has resulted in tight votes. In 1964, there were three votes for amendment of the vote of thanks on the throne speech. The first two were defeated but the third was carried 74-73, a margin of a single vote. The exercise was essentially a vote of confidence and the government lost. Although the government could carry on, Mrs. Bandaranaike said, "No, I lost. I must go."

Interestingly, exactly a century earlier, an amendment vote was carried through by the same margin. The session of the legislative council was opened by Major General O’Brien, who was Acting Governor.

The vote on the first amendment proposed was lost, but the second amendment was carried 6 votes to 5. Five of these six were locals and the sixth, Thompson, voted with them because the Public Works Department was charged with incompetence, and Thompson’s son happened to be an engineer in the PWD! Interestingly also, it was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s ancestor, James D’Alwis who had maneuvered the vote this way.



Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha said...

Thank you, Malinda, from myself aswell as from Anila and Rajiva, for publishing this tribute to our father.
Sanjiva Wijesinha

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i will visit the archives and try to find the interview i did with him. it was very informative.