Thursday 24th February, 2022
The government finds itself in a quandary over its Special Goods and Services Tax Bill (SGSTB), which, the Supreme Court has said, contains sections inconsistent with the Constitution, and therefore will have to be approved by the people at a referendum in addition to being passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament if it is to become law. Nothing could be a more worrisome proposition than a referendum to the government, which is suffering from what may be called ‘polls phobia’, which has caused it to postpone the local government elections.
Worse, the apex court has said it will be impracticable to suggest amendments to the SGSTB’s clauses inconsistent with the Constitution as they will fundamentally alter the basic nature and structure of the Bill and run counter to its declared objectives. The court has said that while exercising discretion conferred on it by the Constitution, it will refrain from determining the manner in which the Clauses 2, 3, 4, 5 and 9 (1) could be amended so as to alter such clauses to become consistent with the Constitution.
The SGSTB was aimed at empowering the Treasury to rake in the proposed new tax, and revise VAT at the expense of the powers of the Inland Revenue Department, whose workers took to the streets in protest. It will be interesting to see how the government seeks to achieve its objective.
The aforesaid Supreme Court determination is tantamount to an indictment of the Attorney General’s Department, which is reported to have cleared the Bill. How come such a bad Bill found its way into Parliament? It looks as if someone had been in a mighty hurry to have it drafted in a bid to rush it through the House in double quick time. Hence the need for all issues that lead to disagreements on Bills in Parliament to be referred to the Supreme Court. There is no substitute for judicial scrutiny of such matters. Unfortunately, there are instances where this golden rule is not followed.
When the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill was presented to Parliament, in 2017, the then Joint Opposition (the rebel group of the UPFA) insisted that it had to be approved by the Provincial Councils as well, but the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya claimed he had consulted the Attorney General, and the latter had said there was no such need. Several questionable sections incorporated into the Bill at the committee stage before being ratified, enabled the yahapalana government, which feared elections, just like the present dispensation, to postpone the PC polls indefinitely. The JVP and the TNA unflinchingly voted for the Bill!
We reported the other day that TNA leader S. Sampanthan had sought Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention to have the provincial council elections held. Now, he wants Modi to clean up the mess the TNA collaborated with the yahapalana government to create!
Many are the instances where the Attorneys General have given the wrong advice to governments. In a country like Sri Lanka, where unauthorised sections are smuggled into Bills even after their ratification, the need for a constitutional provision to enable the post-enactment judicial review of legislation cannot be overemphasised. The questionable provision for the appointment of defeated candidates to Parliament via the National List may serve as an example. The Bill that was passed by Parliament in respect of the National List in 1989, was altered after its ratification, and what the Speaker signed into law contained a provision for bringing in defeated candidates to Parliament through the backdoor as National List MPs. This illegal provision would not have become a fait accompli if the judiciary had been empowered to review laws passed by Parliament.
Thursday 19th May, 2022
Dissident SLPP MP Wimal Weerawansa has hinted that goon attacks on a group of anti-government protesters on 09 May were due to a clash between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the Prime Minister at the time. He went ballistic in Parliament, on Tuesday, while decrying the attacks on the Galle Face protesters. He laid the blame for the incidents of violence at the feet of those who had organised a meeting of local government members at Temple Trees, on that day. Calling for legal action against all of them, he revealed that the police had not carried out President Rajapaksa’s order that the SLPP goons be prevented from marching on the Galle Face Green. He claimed someone had prevented the police from using force to disperse the mob.
Most of the pro-government goons were sozzled to the gills and staggering, and a high velocity stream of water would have swept them off their unsteady feet, and sent them crawling whence they had come, but the police did not use water cannon on those characters. The CID has questioned Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon, who was present at the Galle Face Green, and he should be able to reveal what actually happened. The person who ordered the police to give kid-glove treatment to the SLPP rowdies must be traced and brought to justice.
Weerawansa also claimed that there had been a delay on the part of the Army in reaching the Galle Face Green to prevent the goon attacks although the President had called for immediate action. The allegation must be probed.
Accusing the police of having done nothing while his house was being attacked, Weerawansa claimed that the police had been asked to look the other way. He called for action against the police and security forces top brass responsible for the breakdown of law and order on 09 May.
The police have arrested some SLPP MPs and their supporters for the Galle Face attack, but it is the masterminds behind the incidents who have to be taken in for questioning. Let the police be urged to arrest those who organised the Temple Trees meeting, and incited violence.
Make MPs wait in queues
Arrangements have been made for the members of Parliament to refuel their vehicles at the police filling station in Colombo while hundreds of thousands of people are waiting in long queues for petrol, diesel and kerosene, in all parts of the country. Why should the MPs be given this kind of special treatment? They do not carry out their legislative duties and functions properly, and it defies comprehension why special arrangements should be made to make fuel available to them.
Parliament wasted its time on Tuesday. The government and the Opposition should have elected the Deputy Speaker unanimously instead of resorting to a political battle. The vote on the Opposition’s motion for suspending Standing Orders for a motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be advanced was an exercise in futility. The entire country has censured the President so much so that he has even agreed to strip himself of some of his executive powers, and taken steps to appoint an interim government. Therefore, the question is whether there is any need for Parliament to censure the President separately at the expense of what needs to be done urgently to stabilise the economy and grant relief to the public. Perhaps, Parliament should consider passing a motion to censure itself for its callous disregard for the suffering of the hapless public.
The MPs must be made to undergo the same hardships as the ordinary people who maintain them; their perks and privileges will make even their counterparts in affluent countries green with envy. In Sweden, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, the MPs and ministers are not entitled to vehicles or fuel allowances; they are given only bus and train passes. If they use private vehicles, they have to do so at their own expense. Only the Prime Minister is given an official vehicle there. But in this country, which politicians and their kith and kin have bankrupted, the MPs get first dibs on everything, and live in the lap of luxury while the ordinary people are suffering.
The MPs must be made to wait in queues to refuel their vehicles.
Grusha, Ranil and divided House
Wednesday 18th May, 2022
Parliament has demonstrated, once again, that it does not give a tinker’s cuss about unity and collective action. While the country is burning, and yearning for political stability, the government and the Opposition turned yesterday’s election of the Deputy Speaker into a political battle. The SLPP sought to prove that it exercised control over the House; it fielded MP Ajith Rajapaksa, who received 109 votes, and the Opposition candidate Rohini Wijeratne (SJB), could secure only 78 votes while 23 votes were rejected. The Opposition’s motion seeking the suspension of Standing Orders for a censure motion against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be taken up expeditiously was also defeated. The government secured 119 votes as opposed to the Opposition’s 68.
The government may try to make yesterday’s votes in the House out to be another victory for the ‘Rajapaksas’. But numbers are deceptive. One may recall that in 2018, the UNP-led UNF managed to secure a comfortable majority in the House and foil an attempt to dislodge it, but the UNP and its offshoot, the SJB, suffered humiliating electoral defeats the following year. The SJB and its allies should also have a proper assessment of their strength. The censure motion against the President will only cause the House to waste time and put paid to efforts being made to bring about political reconciliation.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his address to the nation, on Monday, spoke the unvarnished truth. He made no revelations, though. Everybody knows the worst is yet to come. But he is right in having reminded the people of the tough times ahead and the need to brace themselves for the worst-case scenario. He also infused the public with some hope.
The subtext of the PM’s speech was of interest; he said the country’s foreign currency reserves had been at USD 7.5 billion in November 2019 (when his government fell), the implication being that he cannot be blamed for the current economic mess, which mainly is due to the prevailing forex crisis. But those who were at the helm of the yahapalana government are also responsible for the present economic downturn. The debt overhang is partly inherited. According to Verite Research data, at the end of 2014, Sri Lanka’s economic growth rate was 5%, and it dropped to 2.3% in 2019. Between the end of 2015 and the end of 2019, the country’s external public debt increased by USD 12.5 billion, and gross official reserves decreased by USD 0.57 billion.
Successive governments including the yahapalana regime have done precious little to increase foreign exchange reserves by boosting exports and restricting imports. The Covid-19 pandemic aggravated the crisis; earnings from tourism, and remittances dropped sharply, and lockdowns, etc., here and overseas, took a heavy toll on Sri Lankan exports. The SLPP dispensation drove the country to bankruptcy by mismanaging the economy; it refused to seek IMF assistance early, reduced taxes recklessly, indulged in wasteful expenditure, carried out various rackets such as the sugar tax scam, threw money around by way of relief for political reasons, printed enormous amounts of money thereby causing currency devaluation and soaring inflation, and allowed illegal money transfer schemes such as hawala and undiyal to flourish, with some corrupt government bigwigs allegedly benefiting therefrom. The SLPP’s argument that the pandemic was the root cause of the present economic crisis is untenable in that the foreign currency reserves of other countries in the region grew significantly despite the global health emergency.
The ‘new’ government’s efforts to find out the causes of the economic crisis are superfluous; there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The Central Bank, the Finance Ministry, the IMF and independent economists have identified them and recommended how to tackle them. The task that the government is expected to accomplish is to bring about political and social order, without which no economic recovery is possible, have external debt restructured urgently, find bridge financing to make essential commodities and services available, while trying to secure the IMF bailout package expeditiously, eliminate waste and corruption, curtail state expenditure, present a new budget, and restore the rule of law.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would have us believe it is pure altruism that has driven him to undertake his current mission, which is a massive political gamble. He has likened himself to Grusha in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. One finds this analogy interesting. Grusha is a dazzling emblem of love, faithfulness, integrity, selflessness, righteousness and justice. Could this be said about the new PM? We leave it to our readers.
However, there is one striking similarity between Grusha and Ranil. Grusha saves the child of a Governor killed in a coup, and Ranil stands accused of trying to protect a former Prime Minister’s son, among others, amidst a political upheaval.
Restoring dignity of legislature
Tuesday 17th May, 2022
There has been a severe erosion of public faith in all three branches of government, albeit to varying degrees. The less said about the executive, the better; it has become a total failure. The scales of justice are tilted in favour of politicians in power and their kith and kin, and rogues walk free, as a result. The legislature has become a huge liability, and one sees hardly any difference between it and the Mattala International Airport.
The country is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, but the legislature apparently does not care two hoots about people’s suffering. Parliament should have convened a few days earlier to discuss ways and means of resolving the worsening crisis and restoring social order, but the Speaker’s request to the President to summon Parliament urgently went unheeded. The party leaders were also not keen to have Parliament convened before 17 May. Instead, they had some meetings themselves; they are all hat and no cattle. Even when the House is in session, its members are busy settling political scores instead of addressing national issues. Some sensible MPs have called for a course correction, warning that the people are so incensed that they might even set Parliament on fire. Their warning should be heeded if trouble is to be averted.
Parliament always gets its priorities mixed up, and wastes its time and public funds. The recent election of the Deputy Speaker is a case in point. Deputy Speaker Ranjith Siyambalapitya resigned because his party, the SLFP, pulled out of the government. He was re-elected to the same post a few days later. He resigned again on some flimsy grounds. The House is scheduled to elect a new Deputy Speaker, today. No wonder, protesters are trying to march on Parliament.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said Parliament should have a female Deputy Speaker. One cannot but agree with him on this score. In a male-dominated House, women must be able to have their voice heard. It is hoped that a female MP will be unanimously elected to that post, today, for several reasons.
Women, who constitute more than one half of the Sri Lankan population, are not adequately represented in Parliament or any other political institution; we have only 12 female MPs at present. There should be more women in Parliament as well as the Cabinet. Respect for women is zero in the House. Some MPs have the despicable habit of dragging others’ mothers and wives into their slanging matches, and their speeches are replete with smutty jokes or other forms of double entendre or risqué humour. There are occasions when the men in kapati suits even trade raw filth unflinchingly. The situation is far worse in the local government institutions, where female councillors are not even allowed to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. They complain that whenever they take the floor, they are greeted with boos and catcalls from their male counterparts. Harassment has caused them to sink their political differences and fight for their rights, together, and they deserve public support for their struggle. We suggest that the misogynists in the garb of people’s representatives who harass female representatives in Parliament, the local councils, etc., be named and shamed besides being made to face disciplinary action.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is reported to have decided to form several committees consisting of the MPs of all political parties to explore ways and means of tackling various issues. This idea is sure to find favour with those who want to see the country come out of the present crisis. We believe that there is a need for the appointment of a special parliamentary committee consisting of female MPs to address the issues that affect housewives and other women.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, like his predecessors, has been struggling to restore the dignity of Parliament, but it is doubtful whether his efforts have yielded the desired results; protesters are demanding that all 225 MPs go home. One can only hope Parliament will get its priorities right, and refrain from turning the election of the Deputy Speaker into a political battle.
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