As the annual budget debate progresses in Parliament, the government looks engulfed in contradictions and confusions over proposals earmarked for implementation next year. In a way, it is understandable as this is a coalition government comprising of parties with contrasting policies and approaches, even on principal matters.
Contradictions among the Ministers emerged once again at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. A section of the government believes it received a mandate from the people at the last two main elections to punish wrongdoers of the previous rule. Any delay in this regard, they believe, will demean the government in the public eye. Hence, at the Cabinet meeting, some Ministers proposed to set up a special judicial mechanism for the speedy hearing of all the cases related to corruption and defrauds, and to dispense with them as early as possible.
They brought out the point that people gave a mandate to weed out corruption and to penalize those involved in such wrongs in the past.
It is learnt that JHU stalwart Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, backed by others, raised the matter and insisted on a special court for this purpose. Yet, his suggestion hit a snag as Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe expressed reservations in this respect, citing obstacles in doing so under the current set of laws.
Finally, the Cabinet decided to obtain a report after a study into the matter with focus on legal impediments. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will hold talks with the Attorney General, who will discuss and report to the Cabinet as agreed to, at the meeting.
That is one instance where differences came out among the Ministers. In the next instance, Minister Rajapakshe brought an idea to regulate the operation of cyber media. This time, the idea was rebuffed by Minister Ranawaka and others.
Govt under compulsion to review budgetary proposals
Last year, the government’s original budgetary proposals had to be altered due to public resistance. Subsequently, its revenue proposals were undone causing a shortfall of the expected income. The same fiasco is being witnessed regarding the budget for 2017. Initially, as a budget proposal, the government wanted to increase the minimum fine for road traffic offences to Rs. 2500. It was flopped even before the budget debate entered its final stage due to objections from those such as private bus operators who even warned of strike action. Afterwards, the government decided to do away with the proposed increase on the minimum fine. Instead, it proposed to introduce a fine as large as Rs.25, 000 for seven major offences that included drunken driving, speeding, driving without a licence, overtaking from left etc.
The protest is building up against this move, now casting doubts over the possibility of its implementation at a later stage. Heavy penalization for offences like drunken driving and driving without a licence is not opposed as such. But the question remains why a motor cyclist overtaking from the left during rush hours is subjected to such a big fine. Against the backdrop, the government will come under compulsion to reconsider the proposal.
Alongside, numerous other revenue proposals have been announced in the budget. For enactment, fresh legislations have to be enacted in the House. The passage of them through the House depends on the circumstances that would prevail at the time.
Fresh hurdles on constitution making process
Following the eruption of dissension between the principal parties of the government - the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), uncertainty prevails over the possibility to complete the constitution making process.
The six sub-committees, appointed for making recommendations on different aspects of the proposed new Constitution, submitted their reports last week to be considered by the Steering Committee. Stark differences prevail among the parties regarding key components of constitution making. Antagonism between the UNP and the SLFP has also come out in the open. As such, there are forlorn hopes about the possibility of enacting the new Constitution in Parliament with a two-thirds majority.
However, the government, by co-sponsoring the resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), has committed to work out a political solution by way of constitutional changes in the country to the problem in the north and the east. So, it cannot have dereliction of duty in that sense. Be that as it may, the unfolding political situation is not conducive enough for the government to muster the required two-thirds for the enactment of the constitution with far reaching proposals for power sharing with the provinces.
According to sources from the government, President Maithripala Sirisena is reluctant to go for a referendum for approval of the constitution by the people. Against this backdrop, some members who are keen to have the new Constitution as soon as possible now contemplate the possibility of bringing in provisions that do not warrant a referendum at least.
Wigneswaran harbours differences with TNA on approach to national question
In the process, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main opposition of Parliament, is the biggest demander for a power-sharing arrangement. So far, it has not articulated openly on the contours of constitutional proposals it seeks to be incorporated into the new Constitution. In this approach, the TNA seems to be having a fundamental difference with Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran.
Mr. Wigneswaran, who responded to a query regarding this at a press conference on Tuesday, said he did not have any policy difference with the TNA on the nature of political solution sought. In a direct rebuke to the TNA, he said he did not believe in glossing over the matter at hand fearing that the government would be worried or antagonized. “We believe in spelling out our positions forthwith,” he said.
He asserted once again that a Federal type of constitution was needed. Federalism is a terminology unpalatable to people in the south. In a bid to allay it, the Chief Minister said Federalism was a concept used for keeping the countries united rather than dividing.
However, those who argue against Federalism say it is a concept used in history to unify already divided countries and principalities as one entity. Otherwise, they say, it has not been applied in the already undivided countries.
Sinhala only Act stops Wigneswaran from learning Sinhala
At the same press event, Mr. Wigneswaran said he was studying the Sinhala language up to 1955 during his school days in Jaffna, but stopped doing so after the enactment of the Sinhala Only Act in 1956.
“In that move, we felt a hegemonic attitude to dominate us,” he said.
The Act was brought by late Prime Minister S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the father of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
“I mentioned this to Madam Chandrika. Her father was the one who stopped me from learning Sinhala,” he said.
CMs see political move behind fund curtailment in budget
The Chief Ministers of the nine provinces are in for a rude shock over the reduction of annual allocations in the budget presented to Parliament. So, they sought a meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena. Mr. Wigneswaran was also present. In fact, he likened the nine Chief Ministers to the nine planets in the solar system. He called himself the Saturn looking the other way.
The allocations have been curtailed due to financial constraints of the government this time. Most Chief Ministers including Mr. Wigneswaran seemed to have understood it.
Next year, elections are due for three provincial councils -North Central, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa provincial councils. Currently, Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provincial Councils are in the hands of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). In elections, the UPFA is bound to be pitted against the UNP which is calling the shots in the budgetary affairs.
Therefore, some Chief Ministers of the UPFA harbour doubts as to whether the allocations were pruned in a surreptitious move to place their party in a politically disadvantageous position at the elections due next year. Western Province Chief Minister Isuru Devapriya hinted of such a plan behind the curtailment of allocations.
JO congratulates Susil over stand on constitution making process
After the six sub-committees submitted their reports to the House last Saturday, Science and Technology Minister Susil Premajayantha said the SLFP had its own position regarding constitutional reforms, and therefore the party would act upon it.
Upon hearing this, Joint Opposition parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardane chatted to MP Udaya Gammanpila who was nearby.
“We have to congratulate Mr. Premajayantha as he is not ready to act according to the interests of the UNP on this issue,” Mr. Gunawardane told Mr. Gammanpila. By that time, the Speaker had left the Chair for a while.
So, the two MPs were walking up across the Well of the House to Mr. Premajayantha, when they were stopped for a moment by TNA leader R. Sampanthan.
Sampanthan hailed for stand on referendum
Mr. Sampanthan, one of the longest serving parliamentarians, told the two members, “Some Ministers talk of implementing the new constitution without a referendum. We seek an extensive power sharing arrangement. We do not intend to get it done through the backdoor. We have to present it for approval of the people by a referendum.”
The Joint Opposition members were happy about such a stance by the TNA leader. In fact, Mr. Gammanpila hailed Mr. Sampanthan for taking up such a position.
“We respect you for it,” he told the TNA leader.
By that time, the Sarjent-at-Arms was bringing in the Mace to resume business of the House. So, Mr. Gammanpila and Mr. Gunawardane rushed back to their seats. At that moment, Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama, in a jovial mood, said, “You two crossed the floor. It is better if you can stay with us now.”
Then, Mr. Gammanpila responded. “If I come, I will be entitled to the allowance running into seven lakhs for MPs in the government side.” Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would even offer more.
But, Mr. Gammanpila noted that if he could be lured by cash inducements, he would have stayed with the other side during the Presidential Election itself.
Arjuna against selling Hambantota Port
Minister of Ports and Shipping Arjuna Ranatunga is opposed to the move to sell off the Hambantota Port to a Chinese company under ‘debt to equity swap.’
It is learnt that Minister Ranatunga had recently mentioned it to the Chinese Ambassador Yi Xiangliang. Recently, the Ambassador addressed the UNP MPs at a workshop in Hambantota on the proposed Chinese investments in Sri Lanka.
MR meets former Pakistani PM
In the meantime, China also extended an invitation to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a visit. He took wings to China yesterday. Prior to that, he held talks with one time Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf who was in Sri Lanka on some official work.