Plantation Minister Lakshman Kiriella, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, said the country needed a new Parliament to implement the policies of the new President. Also, he said President Maithripala Sirisena assured that he would ensure the support of the SLFP for the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution through Parliament. Excerpts of the interview;
Q How do you assess the progress of the 100-day programme of your government?
I think no government has done so much of work during such a short time. I have been in Parliament for the last 26 years during which so many governments ruled the country. First, we brought the cost of living down by reducing the prices of 13 essential food items and also fuel prices. Then, we raised the salaries of public servants. We gave redress to those who had pawned their jewellery; we increased the Mahapola scholarship bursaries and we have given subsidies to tea and rubber growers. We have also brought down the deposit rates and have zeroed the tax on deposits made by senior citizens.
"The bill on constitutional changes is listed for debate this week. It is aimed at restoring the 17th Amendment and ensuring the independence of the judiciary, the police, the Attorney General’s Department and the public service"
We enacted certain bills we promised. For example, we enacted the National Medicinal Drug Regulatory Authority Bill. We will be bringing the Right to Information Bill soon. The bill on constitutional changes is listed for debate this week. It is aimed at restoring the 17th Amendment and ensuring the independence of the judiciary, the police, the Attorney General’s Department and the public service. We restored the rule of law. All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka including the minorities in particular are greatly relieved. In brief, this is what we have done.We have also requested principals of schools not to charge any fees from students for whatever reason.
Q The main issue is the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. How confident are you that the government can make it law this week?
We were under the impression that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will support it. We are still under that impression, because from the time of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, all SLFP presidential candidates including Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to do away with the Executive Presidency without any reservations. They did not introduce any conditions either. Considering the past record of the SLFP, we thought that the party would support the total abolition of it [Executive Presidency], or at least reduce some of its powers. Now, they seem to be in two minds; I do not know why. They are also insisting that electoral reforms are enacted together with the constitutional bill. This is unfair because the Election Commissioner sought at least one year to educate the public on electoral reforms.
"From the time of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, all SLFP presidential candidates including Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to do away with the Executive Presidency"
It is unfair to link the electoral reforms with the 19th Amendment because this is the first time they are coming out with it. It’s a ploy; they do not want to face an election because if a general election is conducted today, the SLFP and its allies will get only 60 seats.
Q The SLFP has clearly said it will not support the 19th Amendment unless electoral reforms are incorporated in it. If so, how can you remain confident that the bill can be enacted this week?
We feel that even at the last moment, the SLFP would have a change of mind. It is because we have a unique President who is bringing constitutional amendments to relinquish his own powers. If you look into the history of Sri Lanka from 1970, new constitutional amendments have been made regularly. President Maithripala Sirisena is unique because he is the first executive president who is bringing constitutional amendments to give up power. So, we are surprised to see some parties in two minds when the President himself is trying to surrender his powers [as the Executive President].
Q It means you are still under the impression that the President will prevail upon the SLFP to support this bill in Parliament?
Yes, I think so. The President is the leader of SLFP; that is his responsibility.
"President Maitripala Sirisena is unique because he is the first executive president who is bringing constitutional amendments to give up power"
QAs the head of government, has he given you any assurance in this respect?
Yes, he has told our leader that he will take SLFP along with him.
Q Yet, the SLFP raised concerns that the government rushed through this exercise without giving enough time for the public to consider the changes envisaged through the bill. What is your response to this?
Well, they have short memories. They brought the 18th Amendment in one week but there was no public discussion. It was brought up as an urgent issue. But, we have brought this as a regular bill. The Bar Association could not express their views at that time and there was no public discourse at all. In this case, we had about eight weeks’ of discussions.
Several seminars were held where the Bar Association played a role. Trade unions too were included in these discussions. We discussed it with senior members of the SLFP and the Cabinet. More than anything else, people have witnessed the discussion on the need for the abolition of the Executive Presidency for the last 35 years. It has been a key political slogan of the SLFP from the days of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
QAre you trying to say that this bill was evolved in agreement with the SLFP, particularly in terms of its contents?
Definitely; in fact at the party leader’s meeting on April 6, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said that Prof. G.L.Peiris was involved in the discussions and that the SLFP was in agreement with the contents of the bill.
QYet, it is said that the bill presented to Parliament on March 24, and the current version are different. Consequently, critics said that people were not aware of the contents of the latter version of the bill. What are your comments on this development?
If that is the case, they [SLFP] should take it up in the Supreme Court. If there are differences, that is the proper forum. Only the Supreme Court can determine the constitutionality of the bill and the amendments. But the
SLFP does not plan do take that step because its argument does not hold any merit. There is no substantive difference between the one presented to Parliament and the one presented to the Supreme Court.
Q The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a government ally, is also opposed to it. How do you see that stance?
I cannot speak for the JHU. But, I am surprised and perturbed by their action. During the election, we all campaigned together.
The abolition of the Executive Presidency or reduction of its power was discussed at every meeting. I hope the JHU will change their mind and support the bill. We will never get an opportunity like this for a very long time.
Q:Are you saying that the President is in agreement with this bill?
During the election campaign, we clearly said that the powers wielded by just one person would be conveyed to Parliament and that the Cabinet will govern the country and the Prime Minister would head the Cabinet.
Q According to the bill presented to the House, the President has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. It means the President is reduced to a virtual figure head. What is your opinion?
What we wanted was a collective form of government in which members consult one another. When doing so, the best decisions are arrived at.
QThere is no clarity on the ‘Head of Government’ under the 19th Amendment. Why is that?
The executive head is the President. He is also the Commander -in -Chief of the Armed Forces and also the Head of State. In most countries with similar constitutional arrangements, the ‘Head of Government’ is silent. There is also a presumption that the executive powers of the President are utilised through Parliament and the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister.
I was not involved in drafting it.
QIn the event, the Government is unable to enact it, what would you do?
It is worth to go on with this Parliament if there is cooperation. But, if there is no cooperation, I do not see any purpose in continuing with the present Parliament. This is a Parliament formed after the war victory to implement the policies of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now, there is a new President; the situation has changed.
QWhat is the position of electoral reforms?
It was the UNP that took initiatives towards electoral reforms. It was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who appointed the committee headed by MP Dinesh Gunawardane to look into it at that time.
It is not the SLFP-led alliance that did it. After the UNP government was defeated, an SLFP-led alliance formed the government. They had a clear majority. They could have done it [implemented electoral reforms] easily if they had wanted to. Now 13 years have passed after the appointment of the Dinesh Gunawardane Committee and an unanimous agreement is yet to be reached on the subject.
Q At this hour, how are you hoping to move ahead with electoral reforms?
We want to appoint a commission. Electorates have to be redrawn to have a balanced composition without one community having control over the other.
QAre you ready to enact electoral reforms under the present Parliament if there is cooperation?
So far in Parliament, there is no agreement as to what system should be followed. Some are suggesting the New Zealand system; it is a mixed system that I think is suitable for Sri Lanka. The Election Commissioner described the system to us. Finally, we have an SLFP President who is willing to give up his powers.
QThere is a perception that the UNP is trying to dissolve Parliament for an election?
We need a new Parliament and so does the country. There is also a new President and a new Parliament is needed to implement his polices.
Q It means you want an election at this point?
Yes, it is part of our 100-day programme. There is a mandate for it.
What is democracy and what is good governess. UNP in a minority holding in to the Prime Ministers portfolio and the government. UNP never supported SLFP when they were calling for a national government even during the war. They sidelined then government and slandered it in foreign capitals. Ranil is famous for his venom where he canvassed foreign governments not to give assistance to Sri Lanka. If this political turncoat Sirisena has a an ounce of brains he will not shed his powers to a worm like Ranil. The UNP cannot win a presidential election but wants all the powers vested in the prime minister who is appointed by the President. Who has the power is not the important thing, it is the abused. We should safeguard the abuse of power not to give the powers to an unelected moron.
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