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Why people hate MPs



National List MP and State Minister Seetha Arambepola placed her finger right on the spot when she remarked in Parliament last week that “this is why people hate MPs.” She said so in the context of a bit of a shindig in the chamber about an official claim that a meal which cost three thousand rupees of public funds was served to parliamentarian at just two hundred rupees. The figures eventually turned out to be wide off the mark. The actual cost of a fish meal was Rs. 950 and a vegetarian meal, Rs. 629. Even these figures, no doubt, involves a substantial subsidy though not as abominable as originally made out.

As Ms. Arembapola admitted (or tacitly accepted) the public have long resented perks heaped on their elected representatives at taxpayer expense. The media has over the years taken delight (one might even say fiendish delight) in entertaining their readers/viewers with details of what our MPs are fed on in the parliament restaurant and what it costs each of them. Ordinary people relish that kind of information – soup and a fish or chicken course followed by dessert, or rice and curry (with fish or chicken), also with a soup to start with and a dessert to follow, cost the MP only such and such are stories long published with glee. This naturally enrages ordinary people who have to make do with rice, parippu and maybe a sambol, and even that at an often unaffordable cost.

Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s Colombo District MP S.M. Marikkar set the cat among the pigeons by raising, as a point or order, newspaper reports that MPs were eating a three thousand rupee meal for two hundred. The ensuing discussion revealed that 2,000 people on ordinary days and 3,000 during the budget eat in parliament. These include not only the 225 MPs but also parliament staff, policemen, CEB personnel and sundry others on duty there. MPs believe that the astronomical price tag has been calculated by dividing the total catering charge accruing to the parliament budget by 225. If that is so , it is obviously wrong and MPs are being undeservedly tarred. That seems very much the case. Marikkar piquantly said that the voters were asking whether they were eating gold. Added to that, the fish served that day was not fresh, he complained. The three thousand rupee figure had made Dr. Arambepola wonder whether a buffet was being served (as in the luxury hotels that charge around that) and she had found that such was not the case.

It is very likely that everybody, and not only MPs, lunching (and dining in parliament when sittings stretch out into night and late evening as is often the case during the budget debate) are eating subsidized meals. They probably pay a ‘below cost’ charge and benefit from the subsidy. This most likely was an evolving process in the wake of the necessity for a large operation to cater to the creature needs of parliamentarians; and the numbers benefiting would have increased over time. Given that the infrastructure was provided, courtesy the taxpayer, and a lot of food was being cooked, the numbers partaking of the subsidized grub (including the press, we admit) would have multiplied. This what happens in many areas like the government hospitals feeding a large number of patients. Attendants and sundry others also benefit. In fact, at a time the authorities were trying to do away with rice meals for patients, protests arose more from attendants etc. rather than the sick.

Time was, admittedly decades ago, when evening tea at the restaurant in the old parliament by the sea cost just a rupee. The repast included cake, patties, sandwiches and what have you in addition to, of course, the tea. A delectable beli juice from the Marketing Department, was also on offer. We remember an amiable MP of that era, the late Mr. Neale de Alwis of the LSSP, entertaining a constituent to tea and telling him that however much he ate, the host had to pay only a fixed price. “Ithin sahodaraya, hondata bada pirenna kanna” (So comrade eat your fill).

Those were more spacious days, and the parliament restaurant included a bar. Perhaps that helped some brilliant speeches to be made and a mellow convivial atmosphere to prevail; thank goodness no drunkenness then that we remember. That was discontinued later although senators enjoyed the bar facility at their restaurant in the Upper House for many years after the Lower House lost that privilege. However that be, it must be said that the MPs (“I speak for all 225 of us”, Marikkar said), were righteously indignant about the figures bruited. But the fact remains that there is deep public resentment about what our lawmakers, as Sir John Kotelawela once pithily said, are serving themselves while the ladle is in their hands. It sounded better in the original Sinhalese: “handa athey thiyanakang, bedaganilla.”

Quite apart from subsidized (sumptuous) meals, our elected representatives get a pension after just five years parliamentary service. That was later extended to their surviving spouses although that scheme was non-contributory, unlike the Widows and Orphans Pension Scheme of the public service. Last but not least, we must say that it is the duty free car permits lavished on MPs are what infuriates the general public most. One MP has earned brownie points for himself saying he will not take it. We think that Messrs. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya did not take them in the last Parliament and all honour to them. What the people want is not individual ‘sacrifices.’ They want the whole sorry business scrapped once and for all. In President Gotabaya Rajapaksa we have a leader who can do it. We hope he would.

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Gallup polls and G-strings



Thursday 11th August 2022

The results of an opinion survey, released recently, indicate that JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is leading where the public approval ratings of the candidates who vied for the presidency in Parliament last month are concerned. Dissanayake leads the survey on trust in leaders to do the right thing to resolve the economic crisis, with 48.5%, followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe (36.6%), Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (29.1%) and Dullas Alahapperuma (23.7%).

The outcome of the aforesaid opinion poll is likely to make the JVP believe that it stands a better chance of shoring up its image and improving its electoral performance if it remains independent of the grand alliance thought to be in the making, and acts as the Opposition. If all other parties represented in Parliament join forces with the SLPP to form a unity government officially, then the post of the Opposition Leader will have to go to the JVP; that is the basis on which TNA leader R. Sampanthan became the Opposition Leader in 2015.

However, it is not advisable for anyone to go solely by opinion/polls survey results in making vital decisions, for public opinion could be as elusive as the weather; forecasts thereof could go wrong, and some politicians who disregard this fact have found themselves up the creek without a paddle. What befell Keith James Locke, a New Zealand Green Party member, may serve as an example. In the run-up to the 2005 election, he was so confident of victory in his electorate because of Gallup polls predictions favourable to him that he undertook to run across Epsom, in the buff, if his rival won. Unfortunately for him, the pollsters’ predictions went wrong, and he lost! Under pressure from the media and his political rivals, he carried out his promise; he made a dash across the Auckland suburb, wearing a G-string with bodypainting depicting a full suit!

Even in the US, where pollsters employ advanced methods to gather data and analyse them, the Gallup polls results went wrong as regards the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Polls forecasters confidently placed Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning at between 70% to 99%! But Donald Trump came from behind to beat her. It may be argued that Clinton won the popular vote, but the fact remains that Trump secured the presidency. Pollsters also failed to predict the outcome of the British general election in 2015.

One may recall that in Sri Lanka, too, something similar happened at the 2015 presidential election. All secret opinion surveys commissioned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government ahead of that election predicted a landslide win for the sitting President, but his main rival, Maithripala Sirisena proved to be a dark horse. Rajapaksa did not know what hit him. Even Sirisena may not have expected to pull off such an upset victory.

Sri Lankan pollsters may be familiar with the idea of ‘shy Trumpers’, which came into being during the 2016 US presidential election; many Americans did not want to identify themselves as the supporters of Trump, during surveys, due to his undesirable behaviour but approved his policies and voted for him. Likewise, there may not be a dearth of ‘shy Rajapaksers’ in the Sri Lanka polity, and the beleaguered Family may be planning a comeback a la Bongbong Marcos of the Philippines. This may be the reason why they enabled two non-SLPP members, Wickremesinghe (UNP) and Dinesh Gunawardena (MEP) to secure the presidency and the premiership respectively and function as placeholders, while enjoying life, until the time is opportune for the Family members to crawl out of the woodwork.

President Wickremesinghe has likened his unenviable task to that of Grusha, who carries a baby across a collapsing rope bridge, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That, we believe, is an understatement of his daunting mission; he is carrying a much heavier burden—a full-grown, former ruggerite, who is the son of not just a former Governor but an ex-President, no less!

As for surveys and statistical analysis of public opinion, it behoves politicians to tread cautiously. Prudence demands that they keep an ear to the ground, and factor in all political developments and trends in making crucial decisions, instead of being carried away by survey results.

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Reds at sea



Wednesday 10th August, 2022

The JVP has refused to join the proposed all-party government, calling it a ruse to perpetuate the Rajapaksa rule, in all but name, with President Ranil Wickremesinghe being at the beck and call of the SLPP leadership. What the country needs is an interim government pending an early general election because the SLPP’s popular mandates have expired, the JVP says. This is an interesting argument.

Mid-term elections are the best way to ascertain public opinion about a government in power, and this is why the SLPP has postponed the local government polls indefinitely, but it has been losing the co-operative society elections, which are considered a political windsock in that they help gauge popular support for a government. Popularly elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has resigned, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the SLPP’s general election campaign in 2020 and obtained a mandate for the party, has stepped down; Ranil Wickremesinghe, who did not run for President and failed to secure his parliamentary seat, has become the President with the help of the SLPP. Thus, the current dispensation has lost legitimacy, as the JVP claims. It is like a third-rate mega teledrama dragging on without the title character.

It is being argued in some quarters that the SLPP administration is constitutionally empowered to complete its full term because it has a working majority in Parliament; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s successor has been elected by the legislature in the constitutionally prescribed manner, and therefore the government has a legitimate right to remain in power, and there is no need for a snap general election. But what is constitutionally permitted and approved by Parliament does not necessarily become legitimate or morally right or acceptable to the public. The 18th and 20th Amendments introduced by the Rajapaksas to enhance the executive powers of the President may serve as examples. They passed muster with the Supreme Court, in the bill form, and were ratified by Parliament with two-thirds majorities, but the very MPs who voted for the 18th Amendment, overwhelmingly supported the 19th Amendment, which curtailed the presidential powers, in 2015; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had the 20th Amendment ratified for self-aggrandisement, finally agreed to deep-six it. In 2018, the UNP government succeeded in securing a majority in the House and defeating a bid to dislodge it, but it suffered massive electoral setbacks in 2019 and 2020. So much for the public acceptability of parliamentary majorities!

The JVP, however, has a history of propping up crumbling regimes and supporting governments while being in the Opposition; in 2018, it defended the UNP-led UNF government vis-à-vis a bid by the then President Maithripala Sirisena, and Mahinda Rajapaksa to wrest control of Parliament. It voted with the UNP, enabling the latter to retain a working majority in the House. The JVP was also a member of the National Executive Council (NEC) set up by the Yahapalana government in 2015 purportedly to strengthen democracy; the NEC consisted of political parties with parliamentary representation, and some civil society outfits. Subsequently, the JVP pulled out of the NEC, which became defunct. In 2001, the JVP offered to shore up the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, which was teetering on the brink of collapse, owing to a spate of crossovers, and undertook to introduce the 17th Amendment, curtailing the powers of the Executive President. So, President Wickremesinghe may be able to enlist the JVP’s support if he can assure the outfit that the all-party government on the anvil will be an interim one. Such an arrangement will go a long way towards restoring political and social order.

What the JVP ought to bear in mind is that the time is opportune for making some progressive laws that the country is badly in need of. The Executive Presidency is like an attenuated virus in a vaccine; the incumbent President is without popular support, and the SLPP fears the public. It is hoped that the JVP and other political parties that claim to be pro-people will not squander this opportunity. As the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera famously said, rotis must be baked while the griddle is hot.

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Mahadenamutta and his golayas



Tuesday 9th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is no doubt a land like no other. Nowhere else in the world are intellectually-challenged, self-important characters are allowed to go places as leaders, causing irreparable damage to vital sectors, especially the economy. Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for not only suffering fools gladly but also electing and deifying them.

Mahadenamutta, a self-proclaimed pundit who always comes out with stupid solutions which turn out to be worse than the problems he undertakes to sort out, is a character we come across in local folk stories, the most interesting being the one where he has a goat beheaded to save a pot, which its head is stuck in, and then gets the pot smashed to extricate the poor animal’s head. But going by what is unfolding in this country, one wonders whether Mahadenamutta actually lived here and his descendants are holding responsible positions in politics and in the state service.

Some Wildlife Department officers have proved that they are proud descendants of Mahadenamutta by carrying out a rescue operation in Hatton. In a bid to save a leopard, they felled a tall tree, on which the animal had got stuck while escaping from a wire trap. The falling tree crushed the poor creature, and then the officers removed the trap! Minister Mahinda Amaraweera lost no time in ordering an investigation into the incident, and this is a baby step in the right direction. Much more needs to be done to save wild animals that stray into villages and estates.

Leopards continue to perish in traps and at the hands of villagers and hunters in the hill country; these endangered creatures must be protected and those who harm them severely dealt with. Leopards invade villagers as their natural habitat is fast shrinking owing to human activity. Instead of conserving forests, the government has, in its wisdom, introduced a scheme where their buffer zones are released for agricultural purposes. If this disastrous policy is followed and the ruling party supporters are allowed to clear the areas necessary for the recovery and natural expansion of forests, people will have more wild animals roaming in their villages, and the Wildlife Department will go on cutting down many more trees with animals trapped thereon!

Wildlife officers are not alone in emulating Mahadenamutta. It is also thanks to the Mahadenamutta in the garb of political leaders and servile panjandrums that the national economy has collapsed on the hapless public, crushing them, so to speak. They slashed taxes recklessly to win elections, and threw around billions of rupees by way of pandemic relief for political reasons, printed colossal amounts of money, defended the rupee at the expense of the country’s foreign currency reserves and then opted for a free float of the rupee. They refused to seek IMF assistance last year despite warnings by the Central Bank experts and other economists. A blanket ban was imposed on agrochemicals in the name of green agriculture, which should have been implemented in stages; it was lifted after it had ruined the agricultural sector and incensed the farming community beyond measure. Having thus caused the economy to collapse, the ruling party Mahadenamuttas are now trying to resurrect it by undoing what they did.

The Wildlife officers responsible for the leopard’s death are now up a gum tree, but the Mahadenamuttas in kapati suit and their bureaucratic golayas or pupils have got off scot-free, to all intents and purposes despite having ruined the economy and reduced the country to penury.

When Parliament was prorogued the other day, the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) had begun questioning some government officials responsible for bankrupting the country. The COPE now stands dissolved and will have to be reconstituted fast. It will become compliant and stop investigating how the economy was ruined unless its former members are reappointed with Prof. Charitha Herath as its head. One can only hope that all those who have caused the people to be crushed under a heavy economic burden just like the poor leopard in Hatton will be brought to justice.

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