Petitioning parliament is a long established democratic tool that was adopted from the British parliamentary system. In the words of the former Secretary General of the Sri Lankan Parliament, Mrs. Priyanee Wijesekera;
“The Public Petition enables a citizen to bring to the notice of Parliament the flaws in the administrative machinery of the Government, and seek redress for grievances suffered. There is no limit to the subjects on which petitions may be presented and neither is there any limitation on the number of petitions which may be presented”.
Once a MP files a petition on behalf of a citizen, it is referred to the Committee on Public Petitions for their consideration. The Committee has wide ranging powers to recommend the granting of relief, and prior to doing so can inquire and obtain information from public officials and institutions.
In this sense, it can be a powerful tool within a democracy, where empowered citizens can seek redress for their grievances on an unrestricted range of topics.
However looking at the petitioning statistics provided by Manthri.lk, a pioneering parliamentary monitoring website, the minimal use of petitions is apparent.
In the year, 1st May 2012 – 30th April 2013, only 26% of MPs (59 of 225 MPs) ever used their right to facilitate the petitioning of parliament. As shown in the graph above, within the governing UPFA coalition 45 MPs (28%) had filed petitions, and within the main opposition UNP, only a mere 8 MPs (18%) had done so.
In absolute terms, UPFA MPs account for 219 of the 293 petitions filed, a resounding 75%. This is roughly in keeping with the 72% of parliamentary seats that the coalition occupies. UNP MPs filed 59 petitions, which at 20% of the total petitions is directly proportionate to the 20% of seats that the party occupies.
The number of petitions filed by MPs, whilst roughly proportionate to party representation, is not however indicative of optimal performance. When taking a closer look at the data, it becomes apparent that the Hon. Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, is leagues ahead of other MPs in petitioning for citizens. He solely accounts for 105 petitions, 36% of all petitions for the year in question.
The performance of Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara raises the question ‘why only him?’. Unfortunately why petitions are so infrequently used by MPs cannot be answered definitively. One scenario is that MPs are unaware of the straightforward system of petitioning (Standing Order 25A), coupled with a lack of faith in its ability to function effectively. Another is the ability of a citizen to petition the Parliamentary Ombudsman directly, but this is less likely given that most citizens are unaware of public petitions as a mechanism for relief.
The bridging of this information gap, along with an efficient system of responding to petitioners and general cross-party consensus on the value of the petitioning framework, will provide one significant step towards delivering Sri Lankan citizens with a more accessible system of democratic governance.
If you have any questions on how a petition can be made, please contact one of your MPs (contact details on their profile pages on Manthri.lk). If you do not find the contact details of your MP, please email email@example.com and we would be happy to assist you.