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Editorial

Viands and red herring

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Monday 31st August, 2020

It is wrong to say that the government MPs and their Opposition counterparts are perennially at daggers drawn and go for one another’s jugular at the drop of a hat. There are moments of unity, when they get on like a house on fire. We have recently witnessed such a moment. The SJB and SLPP MPs sank their differences and took exception to a newspaper report that a meal costing as much as Rs. 3,000 was sold at Rs. 100 in the parliament canteen. They let out a howl of protest, in unison, alleging that such claims caused an affront to the dignity of Parliament and cast the MPs in a poor light.

We loathe discussing what other people eat, but Parliament must be careful with people’s money. The MPs should share the suffering of their electors, who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a large number of job losses and many people are in penury.

The least the MPs can do is to emulate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who leads a very simple life. The parlous state of the economy warrants frugal economic management and sacrifices. The Opposition has rightly pointed out that the powers anent public finance have been vested in the legislature. Parliament, therefore, ought to set an example to others by paring the cost of its maintenance to the bone.

The parliament food issue is a red herring, we reckon. It is not the cost of the assortment of choicest viands the MPs partake of, at heavily subsidised rates, that has turned public opinion against Parliament. No outsider could ever bring Parliament into disrepute more; the MPs themselves have tarnished the image of the legislature beyond repair over the last several decades.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has said he will put the food issue to rest by revealing the actual costs of meals served in the parliament canteens. Welcome as his pledge may be, more information should be divulged about Parliament and its members.

How much does a parliamentary sitting cost the taxpayer? Various amounts are being bandied about, and an official figure is called for. What has been the MPs’ turnout during the last 10 years or so? How long is an MP required to be in his seat or at committee meetings? Public officials paid with state funds face disciplinary inquiries and punishment for not reporting to work without prior notice. What action is taken against the MPs who scoot away or do not turn up in Parliament without applying for leave? Import restrictions have caused numerous hardships to the public, who, however, faces them without grumbling, given the country’s balance of payment woes. There is a pressing need to shore up the country’s foreign reserves. The outflow of foreign exchange has to be curtailed. Will the MPs be allowed to import duty-free vehicles at this juncture? How much is the duty concession an MP is entitled to? How much do the MPs get by way of bank loans for importing their vehicles? What is the interest rate as well as the payback period? Have the members of previous Parliaments paid back their vehicle loans in full? How many MPs have sold their duty-free vehicle permits and how much have they raised therefrom? What are the educational qualifications of the members of the current Parliament, especially the ministers? How many MPs have criminal charges against them? There were allegations that some elderly MPs sexually harassed their female counterparts in the last Parliament. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised to look into them and requested the victims to make formal complaints. Was an inquiry held?

Meanwhile, the incumbent Speaker finds himself in an unenviable position. There are some new faces in the House, but most of those who incurred public opprobrium due to their misconduct in the last Parliament have been re-elected. The gargantuan task before the new Speaker is to make them fall in line. Easier said than done because of the steamroller majority the government has secured! Let the good Speaker be wished good luck.



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Editorial

Rulers and unionists from hell

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Saturday 2nd July, 2022

What possessed the railway trade unions to launch a lightning strike yesterday causing hundreds of thousands of commuters to be stranded? Their leaders said they were protesting against the non-availability of fuel for their members to travel to work. Do they think fuel will be made available to railway workers simply because they resort to trade union action? What about other workers, especially those in the health sector, who are also experiencing the same problem? Doctors and other health workers languish in fuel queues, but hospitals remain open at least partially to treat the sick and save their lives. True, some railway workers cannot travel to and from work for want of fuel, but a serious effort must be made to operate as many trains as possible with the available workers. All other public and private institutions are managing with minimum staff. A strike is certainly not the way out. What would be the situation if the workers in other vital sectors such as power and energy, health, port, telecommunication, etc., emulated the striking railway unions?

Railway workers have legitimate grievances and so do all other workers, and they must be redressed. Fuel has to be made available on a priority basis to those who are engaged in the provision of essential services. Until the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation receives fresh oil shipments, arrangements could be made to provide fuel to those workers with the help of the Lanka Indian Oil Company. But the incumbent government is all at sea, and its leaders are running around like headless chickens; they are labouring under the delusion that their hare-brained token system will help sort out the fuel problem!

Strikes will only accelerate the country’s slide into anarchy, the signs of which are already visible. Hence the need for all trade unions to act responsibly and be different from failed political leaders. The Opposition also has a pivotal role to play in preventing anarchy from descending on the country; it has to go beyond making noises, and do something constructive.

The government has manifestly failed; it has not been able to make a dent in the crisis despite its leaders’ braggadocio and promises. The Opposition has also failed. It seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the people’s suffering and making the most of the situation. Its leaders are only walking and talking, so to speak, instead of coming forward to make a serious effort to form a multi-party interim government and implement their roadmaps, if any, for economic recovery. Protesting is the easiest thing to do during a crisis; a responsible Opposition needs to do much more for the sake of the people undergoing immense suffering.

The holier-than-thou Opposition politicians have declared that the government has failed––and rightly so––but, curiously, in the same breath they ask the failed regime to deliver! The need of the hour is a surgical procedure, as it were, in Parliament. What the Opposition grandees ought to do is to stop flogging a dead horse, close ranks, work out a common agenda with time-frames for the next general and presidential elections, and demand that the reins of government be handed over to a caretaker government consisting of all political parties represented in Parliament. Their coming together, however, will not help resolve the crisis overnight. But such a power-sharing arrangement will help bring about political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, and go a long way towards instilling hope in the hapless public, rekindling investors’ confidence, making progressive laws, formulating much-needed national policies, and, above all, convincing the rest of the world that Sri Lanka is serious about resolving its crisis and therefore deserves a helping hand. If all political parties could get together for the sake of the people and prepare a five-year plan, spelling out how the country will come out of the crisis, attain its development goals and repay its loans, that will make the task of having external debt restructured and obtaining foreign assistance easy.

Let it be repeated that trade unions must act with restraint. They have to be different from undergraduates who protest at the drop of a hat. Industrial action tends to snowball, and the unions that down tools at this juncture are likely to trigger a wave of strikes, which will deliver the coup de grace to the economy on oxygen support. That is something we need like a hole in the head.

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Editorial

JVP’s call to arms

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Friday 1st July, 2022

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has sounded a call to arms. Speaking at a recent rally in Panadura, he unveiled his party’s strategy to resolve the present crisis. It consists of three phases, according to him—bringing down the incumbent government, forming an interim administration and holding a general election. He said his party was planning to oust the government, and would announce when the people should take to the streets in their numbers for that purpose.

There is no gainsaying that the present government is as dangerous as a dead man walking. Its grandees have ruined the economy, and are likely to inflict more damage on the country if they are allowed to exercise power any longer. Basil Rajapaksa continues to control the government as the eminence grise despite his resignation from Parliament. The sooner this administration is dislodged and a truly multi-party caretaker government is formed, the better.

It was reported yesterday that Israeli Parliament had voted to dissolve itself, bringing down the government and setting the stage for a fifth election in less than four years. This is an option available to Sri Lanka as well, but it is not desirable at this juncture. Therefore, the course of action the JVP has proposed may be considered acceptable, but the same cannot be said about the modus operandi as regards the first phase thereof, for it may be possible to dislodge the government without street protests, which should be the final recourse or pis aller and certainly not the first resort, given their potential to aggravate political instability or even unleash anarchy.

The Opposition and the SLPP dissidents ought to get themselves around the table urgently and reach a consensus on the formation of a caretaker government and a common agenda besides a timeframe for a general election, and then ask President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accede to their demand. If they take to the streets without a proper plan straightaway, they will only aggravate the crisis instead of helping overcome it.

In his above-mentioned speech, the JVP leader attributed the present forex crisis to the theft of the country’s dollars over the years. He said foreign currency in the state coffers had found its way into the offshore accounts of powerful politicians. True, the country is in this predicament mainly because the kleptocrats in the garb of political leaders and their kith and kin have helped themselves to huge amounts of public money and stashed it away overseas. They have also changed laws to facilitate foreign currency rackets. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) has said the Yahapalana government amended the Exchange Control Act in 2017 for the benefit of forex racketeers. FSP Spokesman Pubudu Jagoda was quoted by this newspaper yesterday as saying that the Exchange Control Act of 1953, which prevented forex rackets, had been amended in 2017, enabling exporters to keep their dollars overseas; violations of the foreign exchange laws had been criminal offences earlier, but the 2017 amendment had made them civil offences much to the benefit of racketeers, paving the way for the current crisis.

Curiously, the JVP, which is flaying the incumbent dispensation for the country’s forex woes, had no qualms about defending the Yahpalana government and even preventing its collapse in 2018. It is high time the Exchange Control Act was rid of the questionable amendments and strengthened to hold racketeers at bay.

The JVP leader claimed that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha and his fiancee had planned to have a photo session in Kashmir before their wedding, but a clash between Pakistan and India had put paid to the pre-shoot. Dissanayake said MP Namal Rajapaksa had confided that to him. Whether his claim is true or false, we do not know, but the fact remains that the sons and daughters of most political leaders are living high on the hog thanks to undisclosed sources of income. They must be made to disclose how they have amassed so much wealth. One can only hope that the interim administration the Opposition is planning to form will address this issue.

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Editorial

EC chief tells home truth

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Thursday 30th June, 2022

Some Opposition politicians would have the public believe that the present crisis cannot be resolved unless a general election is held. They insist that they can save the economy and deliver the people from suffering if they are given a popular mandate to govern the country. There is hardly anything Sri Lankan politicians do not capitalise on, and therefore it is not surprising that they are making the most of the crisis. Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Nimal Punchihewa has told them a home truth.

We have quoted the EC chief as saying that action must be taken to ensure that people’s basic needs are fulfilled before an election is held, for the public mood is not conducive to an electoral contest. One could not agree with him more. Even when there are no shortages of essentials and other such deprivations, people tend to turn aggressive and their tempers flare during election campaigns. How bad the situation will be in the event of the country having to go to the polls at this juncture is not difficult to imagine.

What the EC Chairman has not said is that people are so incensed that many politicians’ lives will be in danger if they come out for electioneering.

It will not be possible to hold an election in the foreseeable future owing to various shortages. The fuel crisis has crippled both public and private sectors. Schools have already been closed save those in some rural areas, and hospitals remain partially open with doctors, nurses and other health workers waiting in endless queues to obtain fuel. Teachers engaged in evaluating the GCE O/L answer scripts have run into difficulties for want of fuel. How can an election be held, given these conditions?

Some Opposition parties are labouring under the delusion that they will be able to sweep to victory if an election is held soon because the ruling SLPP has cooked its goose. But the entire Parliament has incurred the wrath of the public, who will not be so stupid as to vote overwhelmingly for any political party again. The economic crisis will not go away anytime soon and is bound to trouble a future government as well if an election is held before it is brought under control.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has torn into the government, which, he says, is using the crisis as an excuse to sell state assets. He has said legal action would be instituted against the culprits under an SJB administration. But protests alone will not prevent the current government leaders from striking questionable deals with foreign governments and firms. They are ready to do whatever it takes to save their skins and will not hesitate to compromise the national interest. They have already cut several shady deals with foreign companies in the power and energy sectors, and the only way to stop them is to extricate the country from their clutches.

If Premadasa is genuinely desirous of saving state assets, then he should join others in taking over the government. Many are the things that need to be done before the next election. The 21st Amendment has to be passed. The Parliament Election Act must be amended to prevent political parties from filling the National List vacancies with persons other than those whose names are submitted to the people before a general election. A constitutional provision must be introduced to enable post-enactment judicial review of legislation so that bad laws do not become faits accomplis. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption must be strengthened, and new laws introduced to tackle private sector corruption as well; it must be given back the power to initiate investigations on its own without waiting for complaints. A special probe must be launched to trace and recover stolen public funds which are believed to amount to billions of dollars. There will have to be laws to regulate campaign finance with provision for stringent punishment for noncompliance, and to make it mandatory to present all vital agreements between the state and foreign governments or companies, to Parliament for approval. There are many other such issues that need to be sorted out once and for all before a general election is held.

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