As the debate on the restructuring plan of SriLankan Airlines got underway in Parliament last Tuesday, it afforded the opportunity for the public to experience a classic case of political paradox in the country.
The country’s national career initially known as Air Ceylon was re-established as Air Lanka in 1979 with no links to the former. It took its inaugural flight in that year. However, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led People’s Alliance (PA) government, headed by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, partially privatised it by selling off a 40 per cent of the stakes to Emirates Airlines in April, 1998 after which Air Lanka took the name of ‘SriLankan Airlines’.
New Left Front Leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara was not present in the country to participate in May Day celebrations of the Joint Opposition which he represents. Instead he had observed May Day celebrations in Havana, in Cuba that had been attended by around 1000 representatives from 100 odd countries
The deal sparked criticism from the United National Party (UNP), the then main opposition in 1998, and the matter was debated in Parliament in May of that year. The proceedings of the debate were telecast live on TV at that time, and the UNP seized the opportunity to hurl various forms of accusations at the top brass of the government of the time. In fact, it was dubbed as a ‘corrupt deal’.The PA government proceeded with the deal with Emirates notwithstanding the criticism by the UNP. The deal was finally revoked by yet another SLFP-led coalition, the ‘United People’s Freedom Alliance’ (UPFA) when after a spat Mahinda Rajapaksa had with the management of Emirates in 2006, the 40 per cent stake was taken back from Emirates,
The national carrier is again in the centre of political focus as the present government has proposed a partnership arrangement to restructure it. Again, in May after 18 years, a debate was undertaken in Parliament on a proposed partnership arrangement to revive the loss making SriLankan Airways which remains a state venture with no private sector involvement whatsoever. Now the UNP, the principal governing party is advocating a partnership arrangement [ to run SriLankan Airways] in a paper submitted to the Cabinet by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The colossal amount of accumulated losses amounting to as much as Rs.461 billion that has caused on a drain of the Treasury has been cited as the key reason for an overhaul of the airline. However, government speakers do not use the term ‘privatisation’ in whatever form the proposed restructuring plan was to assume in the end . The government has proposed that SriLankan should find a partner to run its operations profitably.
UNP MP Nalin Bandara Jayamaha , who moved the adjournment motion in Parliament for the debate , never referred to the term’ privatisation’. Yet, throughout in his speech he mentioned that SriLankan Airlines made profits when in partnership with Emirates.
The airline began to collapse due to mismanagement during the previous rule that appointed relatives of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to key posts in the airline
He said the airline began to collapse due to mismanagement during the previous rule that appointed relatives of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to key posts in the airline.
The details of the proposed restructuring plan has not been made public. However the emphasis made on the viability of the airline in its former partnership with Emirates opens a door to the speculation that the government is considering a similar arrangement.
The Joint Opposition or the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA is opposed to the proposed plan, on the grounds that it amounts to the privatisation of SriLankan Airlines.
It is learnt that the UPFA section, sharing responsibilities in the government, is also not in agreement with the the proposal initiated by the UNP.
MP Bandula Gunawardane, who spoke on behalf of the Joint Opposition, said the national carrier could be revived through efficient management rather than privatise it. In his speech, he said the government was trying to resolve the present liquidity crisis by privatising state ventures.
The deal was finally revoked by yet another SLFP-led coalition, the ‘United People’s Freedom Alliance’ (UPFA) when after a spat Mahinda Rajapaksa had with the management of Emirates in 2006, the 40 per cent stake was taken back from Emirates
“This is the initial step. They are going to see whether privatisation is possible despite public opposition,” he said.
It is paradoxical for both the UNP and the UPFA to act in contrast at different times in contemporary political history. Today, the UNP is poised to do one thing which it criticised in 1998, and the SLFP is opposing what it once supported.
The present Parliament comprises over 60 first timers. And, it is sometimes amusing for senior members to see their juniors getting confused with parliamentary affairs. One such incident took place during the vote on the supplementary estimate recently. The Opposition called for a division on it when most government members were absent at the time, probably because they did not anticipate a vote to be called for suddenly. Consequently government leaders present at the time in Parliament, wondered whether they could muster enough votes to ensure the passage of the estimate.
When the vote was in progress, Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella noted three new comers of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) remaining. The TNA acts in understanding with the government though it is the main Opposition.
Lakshman Kiriella signaled them to rise from their seats so that they could be counted as votes in favour of the government. They rose from their seats as they were asked. Later, they had contacted their seniors and commented: “We rose from seats as we were signaled by the Leader of the House, but we did know for what.”
Lakshman Kiriella signaled them to rise from their seats so that they could be counted as votes in favour of the government rose from their seats as they were asked. Later, they had contacted their seniors and commented: “We rose from seats as we were signaled by the Leader of the House, but we did know for what.”
However, the final result of the vote was disputed and a committee was appointed to examine the relevant video footage of the proceedings. It is understood that government leaders were distraught over the absence of MPs in the House even when important businesses had been scheduled to be discussed. Government should treat is as a warning signal because the defeat of the budget or financial legislation in the House could lead to the dissolution of the Cabinet. In fact, the government experienced a similar situation when a regulation to raise money was voted out unexpectedly in the House during the 100 day period.
A novel committee system has been introduced in Parliament for oversight work of each ministry. Accordingly, the Public Finance Committee has been appointed. The Joint Opposition lost the chairmanship of this committee by a narrow margin during the vote taken for the chair. It proposed MP Bandula Gunawardane whereas the UNP favoured TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran. A vote was taken, but two members , presumably supportive of Gunawardane, did not turn up. Finally, Sumanthiran was selected for the post with a majority of two votes. Interestingly, UNP MP Mayantha Dissanayake also voted for Gunawardane.
New Left Front Leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara was not present in the country to participate in May Day celebrations of the Joint Opposition which he represents. Instead he had observed May Day celebrations in Havana, in Cuba that had been attended by around 1000 representatives from 100 odd countries.
“We had a major meeting in the Convention Palace there and I sat in the audience. Unlike in Sri Lanka, the May Day rally started as early as 7.00 am, and the procession concluded by 10.00 am. As a result, it was less exhausting there. Here, participants have to brave adverse weather conditions, be it intense heat or rain, in walking in processions for hours,” he said.
“People started flocking to the rally from 2.00 am because it was to start at 7.00 am. It is a spontaneous reaction of the people. We too should not keep people under the sweltering sun for hours. Everything had to be completed in the morning. There were short speeches. After one hour, the meeting was over. After that the procession started and wound up by 10.00 am,” he added.
The Joint Opposition or the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA is opposed to the proposed plan, on the grounds that it amounts to the privatisation of SriLankan Airlines
Fidel Castro, the iconic Cuban leader, did not attend it because he was too feeble.
In obvious reference to the United States, Nanayakkara said that participants shouted slogans for friendly ties with that country, without compromising national interests.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa chaired the Joint Opposition’s parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday. In the discussion about its programmes during the days ahead in and outside Parliament, a decision was taken to stage a demonstration against the tax revision on May 31. Similar demonstrations were planned throughout the country to whip up public support against the tax hikes leading to price increases of various products and services.