Although the 2016 Budget was passed with a comfortable majority of 109 votes, uncertainty hovers over implications when implementing its provisions next year.
The original budget proposals, announced by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, were amended owing to pressure from sections of the government as well as outside it during the committee stage. It led to the negation of certain revenue proposals that resulted in a Rs.35 billion budget deficit.Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that he would let the House know in January of the measures to rectify this budgetary position.
On the last day of the budget debate, President Maitripala Sirisena called for a meeting of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs serving in the government as ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers. It took place in Committee Room 4 of the parliamentary complex on the morning of the day scheduled for the debate.
First, Colombo District MP Bandula Gunawardane aired his opinion regarding the budget in detail. Quoting media reports, he said that President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil and Finance Minister Ravi had decided to transfer cash deposits in to private banks.
“This is the general assumption in the country. and it will erode public confidence in state banks leading to their bankruptcy. It is not good for both the SLFP and you as the President,” Gunawardane said.
The President Sirisena, seemingly irritated by these remarks, was quick to respond. He said he was opposed vehemently to such a move by the finance minister, a stand that could be confirmed by those SLFP ministers who were present at that meeting. “There was a Cabinet proposal to this effect. I acted to block it being approved; that is the actual position,” the president had reportedly said.
Minister Gunawardane noted that state bank employees staged a strike demanding the withdrawal of this proposal, but the government was adamant in implementing it.
Budget amendments to such an extent were cited by both SLFP and UNP government ministers as a healthy sign of what they called a ‘new found democracy’ in the country. The Opposition critics rebuffed this idea and called it a ‘meek surrender to their agitation’ against ad hoc budgetary provisions.
At the SLFP minister’s meeting with the president, even Social Empowerment Minister S.B. Dissanayake noted it as a positive trend. “Today, there is a president who is flexible and therefore, you can get budgetary proposals amended,” he said.
Having made such remarks, Minister Dissanayake made use of the opportunity to strike a note of criticism, in lighter vein, against former Finance Ministry Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundara for his alleged stubbornness in the allocation of money for development activities during the term of former President MP Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Despite such reservations about Dr. Jayasundara, Minister Dissanayake, tried to take credit for being able get money strategically released by Dr. Jayasundara as he wanted.
At that time, a smiling President Sirisena recalled how he too had a close rapport with Dr. Jayasundara and secured funds without the knowledge of others to carry out development in the Polonnaruwa District.
President Sirisena also mentioned that Dr. Jayasundara apportioned Rs.290 million for various activities of Royal College, Polonnaruwa as requested by him as a minister at that time.
He got a shot in the arm in his attempt to defend Dr. Jayasundara when Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara also referred to occasions he received enough money from the Treasury when he was the chief minister of the North Western Province.
“When I was the chief minister, I received a sufficient allocations from him to launch various projects in the province,” he said.
President sets precedent
In terms of democracy, a notable development took place during the budget debate. That was the participation of President Maitripala Sirisena in answering queries and points raised by the Opposition regarding the subjects under his purview. The Executive Presidency was introduced in 1978. Yet, the first two executive presidents- the late J.R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa- did not retain the Finance Ministry portfolios. For the first time, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga broke the tradition and kept it with her after she assumed office for the first time in 1994. She never participated in the committee stage debate or any other allocations made under subjects within her purview. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who succeeded her in 2005 also kept the Finance Ministry with him, but did not participate in such debates either. Rajapaksa only delivered the maiden budget speech as the finance minster. He also delivered the concluding speech of the budget debates during the latter years of his rule.
Nonetheless, President Sirisena, who unseated Rajapaksa at the January 8th election, assigned the Finance Ministry, to another member of the Cabinet and kept some other portfolios under him. However, he set a precedent this time by participating in the committee stage debate of the budget on subjects under him, that elicited praise from the Opposition including the faction led by his predecessor Rajapaksa.
Govt geared up to work out new Constitution
Amid such uncertainty over the 2016 Budget , all signs indicate that the government would enter the New Year with ambitious plans for the evolution of a new Constitution to replace the current one introduced in 1978 and amended 19 times. President Sirisena will make a statement to the House on January 9, the day of his first anniversary of taking office. It has already been announced that a motion will be moved in the House seeking to convert it to a Constituent Assembly for the sole purpose of working out the new Constitution that is to provide for the total abolition of the Executive Presidency.
It is now likely that the move will lead to much legal wrangling between sections of the Opposition and the government. The Joint Opposition argues that there is no constitutional provision providing for such a parliamentary resolution to be adopted. But, the government defends its position.
Civil society back in action for new Constitution
Ahead of the government’s move, civil society organisations and trade unions, including the ones that worked for a change of the government at the January
8th election, have initiated action.
These organisations, including the Centre for Policy Alternatives and election monitoring bodies, had a forum on Tuesday to discuss how they should work out constitutional proposals for consideration by the government . Their proposals to be incorporated into the new Constitution, include power sharing arrangements with minority communities, a new electoral system and upholding fundamental rights.
At the event, People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) made the point that all shades of opinion including that of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), should be listened to, in the formulation of new proposals.
Anandasangari sees new the Constitution as futile exercise
The tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) led by senior Tamil politician V. Anandasangari, has scoffed at the idea of a new Constitution. TULF does not have any parliamentary representation at the moment.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Anandasangari has said, “I wish to draw your attention to a previous Constituent Assembly of the Srimavo Bandaranayaike Government formed with the mandate she got at the General Elections of 1970, for the Parliament to sit as a Constituent Assembly to draft and adopt a new Republican Constitution. Based on my experience I dare say that drafting a new Constitution will prove to be a frivolous one. When we members of Parliament met in 1970 as a Constituent Assembly, it took nearly two years to complete the draft. Several sub-committees met innumerable times during this period to draft the new Constitution. In the present situation, in all seriousness I ask you whether it is possible to get all members of Parliament to agree to all proposals placed before them, the problem of the minorities in particular. Everyone knows that taking unanimous decisions on controversial issues like devolution of powers on land, police and such would not be possible. I need not remind you the number of protests that came from all types of people from all over the country on a small matter like the release of political prisoners. Also you can’t easily ignore the repeated demands made by various minority organisations demanding that political prisoners are pardoned. I take this opportunity to caution you against attempts to solve the problem by introducing the ‘Grama Raj’ system. Please try to solve the problems through amendments to the existing constitution and not by replacing it with a new one.”
“Take for example the large number of amendments that had been brought to the Indian Constitution, but they never changed the Constitution. What is the guarantee that our Constitution would not be changed again? Why can’t we identify the issues and bring amendments to suit our needs without wasting our time and taking a big risk in drafting a new one. Whatever you do, please ensure that the aspirations of the minorities are considered favorably.
“Under the circumstances I strongly urge you to drop the idea of a new Constitution and try to solve the problem with suitable amendments. As an alternative you may consider the recommendations of the expert panel that which was welcomed by many people. But, the reasons for the failure in its implementation is not known. I call upon Mr.Sampanthan who I know is not opposed to the Indian Model, to persuade his team to agree to the proposal with an addition of a strong chapter on Bill of Rights as found in the South African constitution, with heavy penalties for violations.
Minister Kiriella’s remarks shock plantation sector
The District Coordination Committee (DCC) of Kandy had its regular meeting under the chair of Higher Education and Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella on Monday. Kiriella drew attention to plantation companies refusing to increase workers’ wages. These companies run estates owned by the state on a 50-year lease. The minister asked these companies to return the estates to the state if they cannot meet the proposed wage hike. All hell broke loose after these remarks given wide publicity in the media. It evoked a response from none other than Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake.
“I was not consulted in this regard. I do not know why he made such remarks,” he said.
The plantation companies also besieged Kiriella with a torrent of telephone calls. In response the minister said that he only intended that the estates should be handed over to the state.
“I never meant to acquire them,” he said.
Kandy District MP asked to visit relatives in search of ‘lost’ timber
Kandy district UNP MP Ananda Aluthgamage made a complaint at the DCC meeting in Kandy on the same day. He said school land in the Nawalapitiya area had been fragmented and distributed among political henchmen of that time. He charged that valuable trees such as jak in this land had been felled for timber during the previous regime.“We do not know where the timber harvested from these trees ended up,” he said.
Minister S.B. Dissanayake, who was present, cracked a joke at that moment, asking Aluthgamage to visit his relatives in search of the lost timber. “Those rackets might have taken place when you were also with them,” Dissanayake added in jest.
However, Minister Kiriella, as the DCC chairman took note of what Aluthgamage said and instructed officials to stop all forms of development activities on these blocks of land until the case was examined. Aluthgamage is a cousin of United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage. They fell out with each other last year, resulting in Ananda Aluthgamage joining hands with the UNP and challenging Mahindananda Aluthgamage in the Nawalapitiya electorate.
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