Three arms of government should co-exist

It was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, the French political philosopher who lived in the eighteenth century, who first articulated the theory of separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary.

Montesquieu’s argument was that these three pillars of government should be separate from and dependent upon each other, so that the influence of any one power would not be able to exceed that of the other two, either singly or in combination.

Last week this country witnessed a series of events which could be interpreted as a potential clash of wills between the Executive and the Judiciary. The issue came to a head when the Supreme Court issued a directive to the effect that the price of petrol be reduced to 100 rupees a litre with effect from Wednesday midnight.

The response of the Cabinet, as the Wednesday midnight deadline elapsed took many by surprise: it noted that it had not received an order to this effect and hence there would be no immediate price reduction. Even after Cabinet met again on Thursday, a price reduction was not forthcoming.

There were also some public pronouncements of note. The Chief Justice was to tell a function at Law College that decisions of the Judiciary are arrived at only after due consideration and with a sense of great responsibility. The Prime Minister stated at a scholarship awarding ceremony that no one who loves the country should object to taxes. Obviously, these statements reflected the divergence of views between the different pillars of Government.      

We do not for a moment wish to discuss here the merits or demerits of the order of the Supreme Court or the response of the Government to that order. But we would wish to dwell on the prospect of an aggravated conflict between the Executive and the Judiciary.

On Thursday itself, as a result of the indecision about the price of petrol because of the impasse between the court order and the cabinet decision, there was a severe shortage of fuel in the market resulting in long queues near fuel stations and traffic chaos on the streets. We would daresay that this is just a tip of the iceberg of what could happen if this conflict escalates further.

This country is not experiencing the best of times. There is a raging war in the North and the nation is also in the throes of an economic crisis gripping the entire world. Weighted down by these two burdens, the average citizen in this country is fighting for his very existence. In such circumstances, he or she can ill afford this kind of conflict which in the final analysis affects every individual.  

The boundaries between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary cannot be demarcated in black and white for every issue at stake. Separation of powers between these three segments of Government is intrinsically difficult with many blurred areas and overlaps.

But, it is worthwhile noting that despite this handicap, many democracies function-and function admirably well too. There is mutual and healthy respect between the three institutions for each other and there are many unwritten conventions whereby they all avoid trespassing on the toes of the other. And that is an essential aspect of a working democracy.
This is not to suggest that Sri Lanka is not a working democracy anymore. Nevertheless, this weeks’ events suggest that there is potential for conflict between the ‘three estates’ and we in the ‘fourth estate’ would dearly wish that would not become a reality for that would indeed be a disaster for this nation.

The examination mess

The latest crisis to hit the education sector was witnessed last week when there was a plethora of complaints against the mathematics question paper at the recently conducted ordinary level examination.
Already, a committee has been appointed to inquire into the matter. But what can be concluded without doubt, is that a majority of students found the question paper extremely difficult-an unusual phenomenon if indeed the question paper met expected standards.

While this particular incident will have its own attendant issues, we must note with much regret that in recent years the education system in this country has been poorly managed, resulting in a series of crises- the latest of which is the fiasco regarding the mathematics question paper.

Admissions to grade one and teachers’ salaries were two issues that the Ministry of Education was unable to resolve, resulting in litigation in the highest courts of the land. The distribution of text books for the new syllabus was a disaster last year. A few years ago, there was an error in the advanced level examination, which compelled the state to recruit two batches of students to the university in one year.

These are but a few of the instances where the authorities responsible for educational policies and services have been found wanting. Minister Susil Premajayantha, we know, is a much respected and well intentioned man. Sadly though, those serving under him do not seem to have the competence to administer education as it ought to be done.
Those who pay for their sins - as evidenced last week at the mathematics question paper at the ordinary level examination - are the children and young adults of the next generation and that cannot be condoned.

We boast proudly about our ‘free’ education system. But we must not forget that for education to be really free, it must be free of bureaucratic bungling and free of incompetent implementation as well.