SRI LANKA: Draft National Audit Bill Must Be Placed Before Public

It has become one of peculiar habits of Sri Lankan parliamentarians to make everything that is pure and beautiful in the architecture of the country’s democracy appear ugly. Last week’s episodes – when children watching Parliament in action from the viewing gallery of Parliament House had to be quickly evacuated when the Parliament transmogrified into a public tavern – is enough to remind us how some of them revel in making themselves look ugly.

But, this is not a new habit. For several decades, everything that is noble and beautiful in our democracy has been tarnished without scruples. The story of the introduction of the executive presidential system that turned democracy on its head, has been told, retold, and is likely to be told again and again, to make future generations feel ashamed about their own heritage.

Another such tale is what was done to the Judiciary. A hooligan like “inquiry” was held to remove the incumbent Chief Justice, which would hardly find parallel anywhere else in the world.

And now, it appears that something will be done to the institution of the Auditor General. A national Audit Bill has been drafted, in keeping with international norms and standards. It is not at all difficult to know what the internationally accepted standards are, regarding the post of the Auditor General. All that one needs to do is log onto Google, and key in a search under Auditor General.

There will appear so many texts from many different countries stating the same basic principles that need to be followed in ensuring an independently functioning Auditor General’s Office. It is these principles that have been incorporated into the national Audit Bill of Sri Lanka. According to those who have participated in the process of drafting, the process has taken 14 long years. A committee led by the Auditor General, and assisted by several experts and the Attorney General, completed the final draft.

Despite the priority attributed to establishing such a law as soon as possible, now there seems to be unwillingness to give to the Auditor General the powers and the independence that the Auditor General needs to have, if this office is to function as a genuine and a credible one.

A new sub-committee has been appointed to look into the draft and the Sub-Committee consists of the following honourable members of Parliament: Sarath Amunugama, Rauf Hakeem, Anura Priyadharshana-Yapa, and Ravi Karunanayake.

This Sub-Committee has made several proposals, which, according to independent experts, will dilute the Bill and will undermine the independence of the Auditor General, i.e. dilute precisely the core principle contained in the draft Bill. This independence is also amongst the core principles found in the laws relating to the Auditor General in most of countries. 

Some of the Sub-Committee’s recommendations and comments in accordance are as follows:

The draft Bill does not recognise rules of natural justice in imposing surcharges, and experts point out that this criticism is not accurate in that all the safeguards usually included in such a law have been included in the draft Bill.

The draft Bill shows that the Sub-Committee also does not agree with giving the Auditor General the authority to submit its budget directly. It has the authority to make such a submission, which is considered an essential aspect of the financial independence of the Auditor General’s Office, and this again is a principle that is now followed in most countries.

Next, the Committee is also opposed to providing an individual fund to the Auditor General’s Department on the mistaken premise that public service institutions are not allowed to have such a fund. In fact, many other departments such as the Tax Department, Customs Department, and the Attorney General’s Department have such funds. The purpose of setting up such a fund is for creating the possibility for the Auditor General to have qualified professionals who are able to carry out the functions authentically.

The Sub-Committee is also of the view that internal audit plans being approved by the Auditor General are against the principles of internal audit. In fact, even now, the Finance Act 13 of 1971 (Section 13) and the Financial Regulations 134 (2) provide for exactly the same.

The Sub-Committee is of the view that there is a need for a definition for “qualified auditor” when, in fact, the term has been defined in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Article 34(1) of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, reads as follows: “… There shall be an Auditor-General who shall be a qualified Auditor, and subject to the approval of the Constitutional Council, be appointed by the President and shall hold office during good behaviour”.

In fact, as the independence of the Auditor General’s Office is one of primary requirements for ensuring government accountability, the best course of action would be to place the Bill that has been drafted by the experts before the Parliament and thus ensure that any debate on the matter would be open to the public. As this is a matter of greatest national importance, it is likely that many competent persons would want to engage in this debate. Such a matter should not be left to a Sub-Committee of selected persons. The Office must be created only on the basis of well-established principles. An attempt to dilute any of these basic principles should be looked into with greatest suspicion.

Sri Lanka already has the experience of the position of the Auditor General being undermined, and the consequences have been the undermining all principles of financial accountability. If this past is not to be repeated again, the public should take greater interest in this debate and demand that the Draft Bill be placed before them as soon as possible.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-069-2016
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Corruption, Democracy, Fabrication of charges, Freedom of expression,