“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: C & P
The VAT Bill was placed before Cabinet for approval. Earlier the Supreme Court blocked the attempt to legalize the VAT increase since the appropriate procedure had not been followed in the effort. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe making a statement in Parliament on the failed VAT Bill said:
“The legislature should not let the judiciary usurp its powers and…We would not sack the Chief Justice or bring an impeachment against him because the Court did not give us a favourable ruling”.
Concerning his deep understanding and insight of parliamentary procedure, practice and constitutional process, it is rather puzzling that he displayed ignorance of essential principles of how ‘separation of powers’ as established in the Constitution was applied. In 1964, being stressed-out in presenting the failed Press Bill, two legendary politicians Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva made similar statements too.
VAT and Press Bills proved inauspicious for two governments; those of Maithri-Ranil and Sirimavo-NM coalition of 1963-65 respectively. Facing one obstruction after the other, the implementation of Value Added Tax (VAT Bill) is billed, according to Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, for redrafting by way of a memorandum submitted to the Cabinet. Earlier, the Finance Minister attempted to by-pass legislature in violation of Standing Order 133, and increase the VAT from 11% to 15%; and widen its liability threshold by doing away with the exclusion granted to certain services; bring several new items that included telecommunications into VAT basket making it a 15% increase on them and also broadening the base of the NTB, [Nation Building Tax]. The SC ruled in favour of opposition stating, that it is beyond the scope of Administrative function of the Ministry, therefore it is a violation of the Constitution.
The learned men in the Cabinet missing this basic law-making obligation reminds me of the drama of Press Take-over attempt by United Front Government of Sirimavo-NM in 1964. Then, the drafting of the legislation was entrusted to ‘Golden Brains’ of LSSP. 52 years later, the task was undertaken by the ‘Whizkids’ of UNP in the Unity Rule. In both instances the weaker-skilled partner, the SLFP took a back seat. Most of the SLFPers in ’64 did not favour a takeover of Lake House, similarly today, the VAT makes SLFP’s Maithri-faction anxious and jittery. They are grieving over the already declining grass-roots level support, and are caught up in a situation with political survival being the priority in the looming leadership rivalry in the party.
The changed version of VAT was mentioned in the Budget presented to Parliament in November last year has faced many an obstruction, prior to that. One feels there are some magical powers of evil spirits on this attempt to increase state revenue through taxation. In 1964, the United Front government was humiliated too while attempting to muzzle the free press through a piece of legislation called ‘Press Bill.
Hearing a petition by Wimal Weerawansa, Courts first delayed the Bill for the Joint Opposition to seek further relief through Supreme Court. The SC put a halt to its progress, in this instance, over a serious practical matter caused due to ignorance by the political authority. President reacted angrily when it was first announced, saying that he was kept in the dark by members of his own cabinet and that he ‘would send home all the officials involved in trying to raise living costs of the suffering masses through taxation’. Pushing the Law from pillar to post, in 1964 tragedy, they were compelled to withdraw and replace it a few times until the government collapsed one year before the end of their term.
“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”
― Oscar Wilde
History of Press Take-over Bill-1964
The three main left parties, the LSSP, CP and Philip Gunawardene’s MEP separated for one and a half decades on ideological differences signed a historical pact forming a United Left Front in 1963. The strong Marxists alliance held the biggest red May Day in the history at Galle Face green on May 1, followed by a campaign for agitation based on ‘21 demands’ slogan backed by their trade union arm which controlled 85% of islands work force. The SLFP government of Sirimavo feared the possibility of facing a general strike. In the meantime, the left wing of the government led by T.B. Illangaratne pressed Bandaranaike to hold talks with Dr. N.M. Perera on forming a coalition government. The talks materialized, brokered by left leaning Cabinet Minister Illangaratne, 10 out of 12 members from the LSSP, (Edmund Samarakkody and Merril Fernando disagreed with party hierarchy on principles and refused to join the government. They remained in the Opposition as LSSP-Revolutionary party) sat with Government. The Communist Party with its four seats joined the coalition too. MEP opposed joining and decided to abandon the short-lived ULF, making way for NM faction to accept three portfolios including the Finance in a United Front coalition set up under Sirimavo on June 11, 1964. The new coalition did not receive any sympathy from the private print media headed by Lake House under Esmond Wickremasinghe, in the absence of State-controlled press.
"Facing one obstruction after the other, the implementation of Value Added Tax (VAT Bill) is billed"
The Sirimavo-NM coalition was for a long time, toying with the idea of nationalizing the Lake House. Earlier the government had appointed a press commission under Justice (retd) K. D. de Silva to scrutinize the state of print media, which reported among other measures to control free press, the nationalization of Associated Newspapers of Ceylon (LH), while the only competitor Times of Ceylon was financially unstable under the ownership of Donald J. Ranaweera MP and financier of the UNP. The government though entrusted the task of drafting the legislation to ‘Golden Brains’ of LSSP, it did not have the patience to wait until the final report of the commission was out. The Bill was drafted using the interim report which was presented Parliament in October 1964. In the meantime, JR Jayewardene, the astute political strategist and a master of Parliamentary procedure, planned a counter move. He arranged two Opposition members Lakshman Rajapakse and C. M. Marikkar to ‘sponsor’ the Bill with the motive of delaying the parliamentary process. When the Bill was taken up for second reading, JR from the Opposition raised objections quoting an old Westminster standing order for Hugh Fernando, the SLFP Speaker to, as pre-planned, up hold the objection. In a hysterical hurry the coalition government introduced a hasty new Bill to nationalise the press. Parliamentary practices were contravened again because two similar Bills with identical objectives appeared on the Order Paper. The Rajapakse-Marikkar-sponsored Bill of JR stood along with another one introduced by Government. JR raised objections for a panicked Sirimavo Bandaranaike government to resort to the ploy of proroguing Parliament and convening a new session to make the Bills automatically lapse so that the government could now carry in a new Bill.
The Throne Speech
The throne speech read out by the Governor General on November 2 was a brief one.
Meanwhile, the UNP’s second in command JR began a clever operation of tempting some right wing seniors of the SLFP who were in bad books of the LSSP. These efforts received a fillip after the master strategist Esmond Wickremasinghe, a former LSSPer, head of Lake House and father of Ranil Wickremesinghe together with JR planned a strategy to win over some government members to vote against the Throne Speech.
52 years ago, on December 3, 1964, Charles Percival de Silva, CP to his colleagues and ‘Minneri Deiyo’(Deity of Minneriya) to the people of Polonnaruwa, Minister of Land, Irrigation and Power in the SLFP-LSSP Coalition Government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and the SLFP’s second in command, in a surprise move crossed over to the Opposition. In his dramatic act, a group of 13 others too from Government joined CP de Silva. The Thomian school-mate of Dudley Senanayake and ex-civil servant’s crossover event resulted in the Sirima Bandaranaike Governmentt being defeated by one vote in Parliament. Consequently Parliament was dissolved and fresh polls held in March 1965.
The ‘Minneri Deiyo’ crossover was described as an act which saved press freedom in the country. Today, there is no one in the Unity Government or the opposition who can save the poor masses of burdens of rising cost of living and increasing taxes. The uncertainty; with two factions in the ‘unity’ striving to maintain command over the other on economic policies and the imposition of tax hikes on already infuriated masses after Rajapaksa government’s awfully liberal policies with State money; abuse, mishandling and plundering of State resources, and continued waste by the present lot, had left the people wondering about their future.
Over to you, ‘Medirigiri Deiyo’ of Polonnaruwa. Only you can save them!